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Mapping The Suburbs

October 2, 2013

When Arcade Fire released their newest single (Reflektor), heralding the release of their new album of the same name, I realized that I am long overdue on my intention to analyze (and maybe even defend) their album The Suburbs (2010[!]). Though the album is laden with critical praise and awards (Album of the Year at the Juno and Grammy Awards, and on the top of several best-albums-of-the-year lists), it has gotten a far more muted reaction from its fans than it deserves. Obviously, by merely writing this post, I’ve already tipped my hand as to what I think of the album, but I will try to avoid any aesthetic statements about the album, and cut straight to the interpretation. However, to adequately unpack Arcade Fire’s third full-length studio album, a bit of context is necessary.

Fittingly, a large portion of the blame for the almost faddish apathy The Suburbs has received can be attached to the reaction, overreaction to that reaction, and subsequent analysis and posturing in light of these reactions. In short: hipsterism.

It is almost a tautology to say that hipsterism and Arcade Fire are no strangers. One might even trace the current incarnation of hipsterism to right around the same time period that the Arcade Fire burst into the public psyche, around 2003-04. In some ways, Arcade Fire was the vanguard of this new hipsterism in general, with provocatively indie and millennial methods and themes. They are a large group of multi-instrumentalists, with some of the core members explicitly trying not to get “too comfortable” on any given instrument to keep the sounds elemental and orchestral rather than going for an attention-grabbing solo. Their early themes involved building a family out of peers and loved ones after leaving the nest, feeling thrust into a harsh and indifferent world without the tools to survive, lovesickness, feeling the call to action, feeling the need to rebel and the pain of being an adult when you were just getting the hang of adolescence. They exult in the power of solidarity and community in the face of difficulty (especially Funeral, which was in part a reaction to the deaths of several family members). And like many 21st century hipsters, their aesthetics are somewhat turn-of-the-20th-century; with their liberal use of strings and organs, they were practically shaving the way for the waxed mustaches of their fans (not to downplay the influence of The Decemberists, mixologists, and the like). Combine the fun and funky style with a heavy dose of real virtuosity and you’ve got an album with the second most appearances on end-of-decade Top 10 lists, behind Radiohead’s Kid A, and landing at #151 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time (not bad for a debut record).

That universal appeal predictably garnered high praise from a variety of culture critics, including some superlative (and maybe unwanted) accolades like the assumption that Arcade Fire would be the band that would “save rock and roll” or MTV’s proclamation that the Arcade Fire was “Rock and Roll Champion of the World” when The Suburbs debuted at #1 of the U.S. and U.K. charts. This weird, wonderful, heavy responsibility provided some of the thematic fuel for the sophomore Neon Bible, an album that was an expression of the band’s reaction to its newfound position in the world. As perhaps the quintessentially indie band, they were trying to relate to their community without controlling it, and that prospect is difficult when you have voluntary cultists.

Songs like “Neon Bible” evoke a reality where the message/aesthetic they were spreading had become a sales pitch where a band has to advertise, hawk and sell their work, now the opposite of the of more artistic work they did because it had intrinsic meaning. Then songs like “Black Mirror” raise the question of whether the band was unable to really see themselves for what they were when they were bathing in superlative praise. Or did they feel as though they had been deprived of the ability to shape their own identity when pigeonholed as hucksters in “(Antichrist Television Blues)”? In any event, the album seems to clearly demonstrate some discomfort with the responsibility entailed by a reputation that they didn’t even specifically seek to cultivate. The closer, “My Body is a Cage,” suggests that maybe these guys just want to dance like any good rock ‘n’ roll band, but that being a star doesn’t remove the difficulty of relating to people on the authentic level that had always defined the band.

My body is a cage that keeps me
From dancing with the one I love
But my mind holds the key

I’m standing on a stage
Of fear and self-doubt
It’s a hollow play
But they’ll clap anyway

In any event, all of this background is to say that The Suburbs is an album that is meant to be understood and related to by any and all listeners, even though it comes from a group of kids in their late 20s and early 30s who wield and revere the power of music and have tried to understand and capture the power of shared experience, regardless of scale. The album starts with the titular Suburbs drawing an idyllic-though-tense childhood as the backdrop of Arcade Fire’s aural landscape. That landscape will blossom into a picture of trepidation about how kids have grown up and how they/we were raised to handle the adult world, or not.

Kids wanna be so hard
But in my dreams we’re still screamin’ and runnin’ through the yard
And all of the walls that they built in the seventies finally fall
And all of the houses they build in the seventies finally fall
Meant nothin’ at all

Arcade Fire seems to wonder why we are in such a rush to grow up and get out of the safe zone that was built to incubate kids. The metaphorical walls of the suburbs’ narrow range of experience is designed to both keep us in and external dangers out, but that reality feels ultimately limited by the metastasizing energy of youth and the knowledge that something exists beyond.

The song that follows conveys the notion that we are sometimes blind to where our energy, escapism and emotion will lead. Indeed, “Ready to Start” is like Pink Floyd’s “Welcome to the Machine” for the Indie era, in the way it describes the confluence of creativity and commercialism:

Businessmen drink my blood
Like the kids in art school said they would
And I guess I’ll just begin again
You say you, can we still be friends

All the kids have always known
That the emperor wears no clothes
But to bow to down to them anyway
Is better than being alone

“Ready to Start” conveys the pressures to conform and dig into a society that provides shallow validation, even though that validation “is better than being alone.” In a few sparse lines, the band evokes the art-vs.-commerce dichotomy that could roughly break down into thesis-antithesis in Hegelian terms. This thesis-antithesis also nicely aligns with Funeral, the art-ier album, and Neon Bible, the album commenting on commercialism. One can see that The Suburbs then, is meant to be the synthesis, having learned the lessons of both Funeral and Neon Bible.

The middle tracks, beginning with “Modern Man” reinforce the growing conflict of hoping to achieve self-actualization while being hampered by our human relationships, needs, and tendencies.

In my dream I was almost there
And you pulled me aside and said you’re going nowhere
They say we are the chosen few
But we’re wasted
And that’s why we’re still waiting

The protagonist in this song could be any member of Arcade Fire just as easily as anyone in the audience. In the context of aspirations and dreams, everyone feels like they might be “the chosen few” (Or do I think that just because I was raised Jewish?). Either way, feeling destined for greatness is an undoubtedly millennial attitude, which has come to be paired with the feeling of stalling out on the path to one’s dreams.

As previously mentioned, part of the angst of this album (as well as Neon Bible) is the frustration of having to calculate how one is perceived vs. how one wants to act. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of postmodernism is that those two values collapse for those who pose or hold themselves out for public consumption. The quandary then, to esoteric creatives like Arcade Fire, is how to convince the audience that it isn’t all “just an act” for attention-grabbing purposes. How can a seven-plus member band that incorporates violins and helmet-based percussion say that those choices are inherent to the work, and not a function of creating an image for public consumption? Of course, according to the critics, it’s all a show. As a result, Rococo (meaning an overly baroque style of music “marked by a generally superficial elegance and charm and by the use of elaborate ornamentation and stereotyped devices”) is a fitting self-parody.

Let’s go downtown and watch the modern kids
Let’s go downtown and talk to the modern kids
They will eat right out of your hand
Using great big words that they don’t understand

They seem wild but they are so tame
They seem wild but they are so tame
They’re moving towards you with their colors all the same
They want to own you but they don’t know what game
They’re playing

Of course, whether rococo is ridiculous is another core theme running through hipsterism. Arcade Fire seems to suggest that the better dichotomy is not whether one cares about appearance or the action itself, but whether one actually authentically embraces the action. If the “modern kids” use “great big words that they don’t understand,” then the pose is simply a pose. “Empty Room” continues the theme by re-phrasing the question as when is it acceptable to be yourself as compared to when one has to put on a show to impress someone else. Whether the goal is authentic love or authentic rock ‘n’ roll seems intentionally ambiguous.

When I’m by myself
I can be myself
When my life is calm
But I don’t know when

The duality of the theme between love and rock ‘n’ roll is part of what makes the album personal and meaningful to both the band and the audience. The same can be said for the feeling of being forced to grow up that pervades each of their albums, but  “City With No Children” crystallizes some of that painful growth and transition into adulthood, longing for innocence and (maybe) unquestioned authenticity.

I wish that I could have loved you then
Before our age was through
And before a world war does with us
Whatever it will do

You never trust a millionaire
Quoting the sermon on the mount
I used to think I was not like them
But I’m beginning to have my doubts
My doubts about it

Half Light I,” a track laden with palpable feelings of nostalgia, and “Half-Light II (No Celebration),” a sonic march towards something inevitable, consummate the transition between childhood and adulthood. The songs are marked by both an acknowledgment of sin and an acceptance of fate, with the now-adult narrator/lyricist finds solace in youthful reminiscence and in hope for the next generation.

Oh, this city’s changed so much
Since I was a little child
Pray to God I won’t live to see
The death of everything that’s wild

That vibrant, wild, youthful energy can take a child for a ride in many different directions, not all of which are good on adult reflection. But these songs warn of the danger in backlash and resentment. Even though simply using the term “the suburbs” seems derisive, Arcade Fire continues to build on its the theme of appreciating the ‘burbs’ ability to cultivate and incubate childhood innocence and exuberance (even drive or motivation), even though that innocence can make us victims. “Suburban War,” one of the more dark and dramatic tracks on the album finds the narrator at odds with an old friend or love.

…Now the music divides us into tribes
Choose your side, I’ll choose my side
All my old friends they don’t know me now…

That it is music that has the power to “divide[] us into tribes” is reinforces the point that this individuals of the millennial generation, more than ever before, wrap their identities in what they consume, or in this case, what art they like (as opposed to what others like). This theme is brought to its crescendo in “Month of May.” With some of the most transparent lines on the album, the narrator is “gonna make a record in the month of May,” deliberately invoking everything about the freshness of Spring and love in the air. But “just when I knew what I wanted to say,” the reaction of the angsty, identity-hungry crowd becomes more important than the expression itself.

I said some things are pure, and some things are right
But the kids are still standing with their arms folded tight

So young, so young
So much pain for someone so young
Well, I know it’s heavy, I know it ain’t light
But how you gonna lift it with your arms folded tight?

Shots fired, and deadly accurate ones at that. Arcade Fire asks how can you put your hands in the air to celebrate what is pure about music, with arms folded across the chest, unwilling to openly and uncritically receive artistic expression for what it is? Really, how can you do anything but want to let your hipness go when you watch them?

Indeed, one of the great virtues of Arcade Fire is precisely that they are unifying and almost universally accessible. But as previously indicated, that great virtue is at odds with the overpowering tendency toward specificity, obscurity, and exclusivity self-imposed by hipster culture. You know the joke about the best hipster band of all time, right? Ah, forget it, you’ve probably never heard of it.

But that too-hip-to-be-cool mentality is certainly not what Arcade Fire represents with their music. The proof is in the platinum, someone more cynical than myself might say. A more generous interpretation is that Arcade Fire doesn’t cultivate abrasive inaccessibility because their project is, like most artists throughout history, to speak to the universality of their experience, though with an acknowledged point of view. For example, feelings of abandonment or trepidation are not unique to this generation, this part of the world, this set of viewpoints, or any other. They seek to fashion themes that invoke solidarity and accessibility, even to a stridently individuated hipster audience “with their arms folded tight.” Indeed, in an age where near-infinite cultural niches mean that people can find something suited to the finest-honed edge of their tastes, a universal experience is perversely worth less to an audience. And it’s easy to see why: audiences have been battered by the music industry with carefully manufactured, “universal” experiences for decades, and those fabricated and engineered products sound inauthentic to a hip audience.

As an aside, the cynic might say that hipsters only embrace inaccessibility as a badge of individuated, personal honor that they were capable and intelligent enough to decode the secret enjoyment that their favorite band has to offer, and if others aren’t so capable, that simply reinforces the uniqueness and individuality of that given hipster. To which the hipster might spout off any number of witty rejoinders like, “fuck off, you just don’t understand.”

The angst is strong with this generation. The remainder of The Suburbs is an attempt to openly acknowledge that fact. I’ll give you one guess what “Wasted Hours” and “Deep Blue” are about.

Wasted hours before we knew
Where to go and what to do
Wasted hours that you make new
Turn into a life that we could live

We watched the end of the century
Compressed on a tiny screen
A dead star collapsing and we could see
Something was ending

We Used to Wait” is a similar elegy for simpler times, as the title posits. In a manner evocative of an old fogey reminiscing about how things used to be “in my day,” Arcade Fire notes that “my day” is still within recent memory.

By the time we met
The times had already changed
So I never wrote a letter
I never took my true heart
I never wrote it down
So when the lights cut out
I was lost standing in the wilderness downtown

Now our lives are changing fast
Hope that something pure can last.

The album winds to a close on a somewhat enigmatic downbeat with one of the most mature suites that Arcade Fire has put together between “Sprawl I (Flatland)” and “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains).” The narrator is still looking for that youthful optimism and sense of self, and how to inculcate it in a way that doesn’t automatically invoke the cynicism and skepticism and postmodern self-consciousness. The band is still looking for a way to play their music without having to battle through glib definitions and categorization by music executives and reviewers who want to monetize and package their art.

The last defender of the sprawl
Said “Well, where do you kids live?”
Well, sir, if you only knew what the answer’s worth
Been searching every corner of the earth

They heard me singing and they told me to stop,
Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock.

Sometimes I wonder if the world’s so small,
Can we ever get away from the sprawl?
Living in the sprawl,
Dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains,
And there’s no end in sight,
I need the darkness someone please cut the lights.

Anyone who’s ever bathed in a glow of fluorescence knows that the contrasting darkness that would exist without it can be peaceful. What were once oases of light now fill the world, making it too safe for the kind of dangerous energy that inspires and excites. Overbearing safety and security, symbolized by the lights of the suburbs, has metastasized and spread to the point where kids risk smothering. That has always been the fear of The Suburbs: the point between safety and boredom is a place where someone can be born but cannot live. That desk job or commercial pop is a place where someone can survive but cannot flourish.

Much of the album (and even some of Arcade Fire’s other work) seems to evoke T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” Tracks like “Month of May” have direct parallels to Eliot’s provocative inversions like “April is the cruellest month.” Eliot’s poem was in part a eulogy; the painful self-awareness brought by modernism meant the death of innocence. That same grieving for unfiltered life pervades The Suburbs, including the track “Speaking in Tongues,” which wasn’t included on the standard release, but which features a direct quotation from the poem: “Hypocrite reader, my double, my brother.” (quoting “You! hypocrite lecteur!—mon semblable,—mon frère!“). The song urges the audience to stop speaking in incomprehensible tongues (“Weialala leia/Wallala leialala” anyone?), to “come out of your head and into my world now.” Arcade Fire wants you to dance with them, not wonder about the ramifications of dancing on your prim image.

Aside from the beautiful lyrics and music, one other major noteworthy aspect of The Suburbs is how interactive the album is. The first single, “We Used to Wait,” was released ahead of the album in a digital experiment called “The Wilderness Downtown,” wherein a user can enter the name of their childhood street address, and see a music video that fills in some of the backgrounds with Google Street View images of their block and house. The effect, startling as it was, was a beautiful way to identify yourself with the music.

Evolving one step beyond The Wilderness Downtown, the interactive experience for “Sprawl II” actually requires the user to dance (as measured by your webcam) in order to play the filmstrip style video. Arms folded tight won’t suffice, the user has to actually be willing to move and open oneself up to the experience.

These interactive experiences further reinforce Arcade Fire’s mission to get past the  passive consumption of music and art as a mode of self-identifying. The point is to act in a manner that reveals one’s self, not wait until you find the right sound on a CD rack somewhere! Of course, that invitation may require you to get out of your comfort zone, but so does leaving the suburbs.

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