As smart and innovative as the Sprawl II dance-video is, Arcade Fire found a way to top themselves, with The Wilderness Downtown web experience.
This amazing interactive is based around the song We Used to Wait and therefore ties deeply into the underlying themes of The Suburbs—roads, connection to place, escape, youth, the wild, and interaction with technology—while at the same time being a potent showcase of digital wizardry (it was designed to highlight the capabilities of Google Chrome and HTML 5).
Unfortunately, TWD is custom-made to each user’s environment, so I can’t put up a video for you to watch; you’ll just have to try it yourself (although this page provides a decent overview). It’s recommended to use the address of your childhood home, which works really well if you grew up in the ever-shifting sprawl of American ’burb-land, because it’s quite likely that said environment no longer appears as you remember it (“this town’s so strange/they built it to change/and while we sleep we know the streets get rearranged”). Me, I grew up way out in the country, which doesn’t pack nearly the same punch.
Once your experience is compiled, we open with an anonymous, hooded young person running through the streets of The Suburbs. Based on the urgency expressed, he’s clearly not just out for a jog. What is he running from? As we’ve seen throughout the album, when the prevailing narrative of Modern Kids raised in the ’burbs is to seek escape by fleeing to the city only to return to the ’burbs as ‘adults’—who wouldn’t blame him for wanting to Get Out?
Throughout, we follow our running figure from high overhead, drifting along with a flock of birds, as well as at street-level courtesy of Google.
Eventually, the video culminates with some very-likely eco imagery as the trailing birds begin to divebomb into the ground, causing trees to grow up beautifully and cover the map in a sea of rewilded green. Of course, this is really only effective if the map—and therefore your childhood home—is in a deforested suburb.
This all transpires over the song’s final section, in which Win implores us to “Wait for it!” As I’ve said before, the song is all about cultivating patience in the face of a technologically-increased pace of life, which brings us to The Wilderness Machine.
Now, back during the middle section of TWD—over the “I’m gonna write a letter to my true love, I’m gonna sign my name” verse—we took a break from watching our harried runner and were invited to “Write a postcard or advice to the younger You”, using super-cool fractal-roots. Now, while Arcade Fire was still touring to support The Suburbs, their concerts would coincide with appearances of said Machine—a steampunk-y contraption which would print out postcards submitted from TWD. While that alone is a great way to play around with the back-and-forth between digital and analog suggested by We Used to Wait, here’s the best part: the postcards that the Machine printed out were embedded with tree seeds!—so that you could take someone’s former self’s postcard home and reforest your own environment, thus bringing TWD’s video experience full circle into the real world.
And believe me, nothing cultivates patience like growing a tree.