Arcade Fire's "The Suburbs" Doesn't Hold Together, But Still Carries Weight
The Suburbs is a sprawling, messy opus that shows Arcade Fire at their best and worst.
In senior year of high school, I spent a lot of time walking around by myself. Not because I felt especially lonely or angsty, but because walking was an activity that was always available to me, that didn’t require much energy or planning. While I walked (or, later, drove) I listened to Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs. As my friend recently pointed out, The Suburbs is the perfect soundtrack to walking the streets you always walk, running the errands you always run, experiencing the places you always experience. It’s an album that centres places and situations usually relegated to the background, which features dramatic songs about driving around aimlessly and feeling alienated at parties. Most of all, The Suburbs explores the complicated mess of feelings most people have about their hometowns, the default setting for the first eighteen years of life. It perfectly captured my ambivalence about the suburban town where I grew up. I felt comfortable in the suburbs, but also lonely; I felt at home, but I also wanted to leave. I felt knee-jerk annoyed by people who characterized suburbia as conformist, stifling, evil. My town felt too specific and strange to fit into any stereotypes. I did not understand what it “meant” to grow up in the suburbs; it was simply the place where I happened to exist.
Like the suburbs, I also had ambivalent feelings about The Suburbs. On one hand, songs like “Half Light I” and “Sprawl II” spoke about my experiences growing up in suburbia. On the other hand, the tone of the album often slid towards condescension or preachiness. I returned to The Suburbs hoping to resolve my feelings of ambivalence: perhaps I’d discover that the album’s actually a masterpiece, or, alternately, that it’s hollow and pretentious. I came out realizing how deeply contradictory and strange The Suburbs really is. It’s an album created for Millenials that looks down on Millenials; it’s progressive in critiquing capitalism yet conservative in preaching a return to traditional values; it’s grounded in one person’s specific depression, but wants to speak for an entire generation.
The Suburbs portrays growing up in suburbia with realism, detail and grace, giving dignity to boring or unremarkable moments most artists would just ignore. “Wasted Hours” is a song about taking pointless joyrides with a high school girlfriend. They drive because the town’s built to make driving easy and because it’s the only obvious thing to do. As Win Butler sings, “first they built the road, then they built the town, that’s why we’re still driving around, and around, and around.” The town’s architecture sets the parameters of what the kids can do (drive, shop, wander aimlessly). The suburbs are a known territory that teenagers can identify with or against, stake out positions in relation to. His friends joke about starting a “suburban war,” “your part of town against mine.” A rebellious friend grows his hair long and starts a counterculture “war against the suburbs.” The town’s a backdrop for the kids to interact with – one they assume will always exist, unchanging.
Growing up in a suburban town provided me with stability and a comfortable setting to base my life around. Having a limited set of options can be boring or stifling, but it also gives you a sense of normalcy. At its best, The Suburbs is about the shock of realizing that the things you grew up thinking of as normal are actually rare, that you enjoyed privileges of safety and comfort that don’t exist for most people. The songs set in modern times crackle with confusion and instability. Most places don’t feel liveable. The city’s loud, unpredictable and bureaucratic; it constantly changes in ways that make basic actions like sleeping and navigating more and more difficult. In order to live there, you need to stand “in a line for a number that you don’t understand.” The narrator leaves the city in “Half town’s grown, but all the new stuff doesn’t seem to benefit anyone. Light II” to “find a town where he can live,” only to return to his hometown and find that it is unrecognizable. There’s more sprawl, but less community; more wealth (“diamonds”) there, but no life.
In order to understand what Arcade Fire’s talking about, it helps to know something about the role of suburbia in American life, and how that role changed in the 2000s. Originally, the suburbs were made to help working-class people move into the middle class, gain a permanent home outside the city. Middle-class families moved there expecting to stay for years, to form a community with the neighbours, to give their children a safe, stable place to grow up. In the early 2000s, real estate companies built and flipped suburban houses to families who could not afford to live there long-term. The mortgage payments started out small, but quickly and steadily rose. In a few years, the families went into debt and the houses got foreclosed. The suburbs no longer gave families a stable community and a path into the middle class. While the suburbs were once a symbol of the American dream fulfilled, they now became symbols of capitalist greed. The relentless growth of the housing market – at the expense of people and the environment – created a new, unrecognizable landscape. That’s what Arcade Fire refers to on “Suburban War,” when Win describes how “the town’s so strange/they built it to change” or refers to the suburbs as “stretched-out thin and dead.”
The disillusionment expressed in songs like “Half Light II” comes from personal changes as much as political ones; specifically, from losing the ability to experience your town the way you did as a child. The album’s happiest moment comes on “Half Life I,” a song about two teenagers sneaking out to run around the town after midnight. Butler fills the lyrics with contradictions: they “know the streets so well,” but the half light “makes the place new”; he’s connecting with someone he clearly loves, but he can’t recognize her in the dark; he’s thrilled by freedom, but trapped in his own head (people’s minds are described as “houses without enough windows,” they “hear human voices, but they’re only echoes”). In the half light, the narrator experiences both being in a familiar place, and travelling to somewhere new and exciting; having reckless fun like a child, but staying out late like an adult; connecting intimately with another person while constructing a fictional narrative about what she’s feeling. He’s safe but free, lonely but connected. Violin flourishes spin out into the air, crazy and free. The percussive guitar sounds like a fast heartbeat, which makes the song feel grounded in one person’s experience. Like teenage emotion, the song feels hopeful and unfinished, with tendrils of sound reaching out in every direction.
“Half Light I” reminds me of growing up. I remember wandering in the woods outside at night, slipping through trees into a high school campus to listen to the marching band play. My friends and I trespassing, hearing deer crash through the grass away from us. These moments happened inside my town, but outside the normal order of my life. Exciting, beautiful, fleeting things I didn’t fully understand – a herd of deer moving under long grass, random band music filtered through the woods, a fire glittering at night – entered the place I thought I knew well. I felt what Win Butler calls “wildness,” the feeling he mourns on “Half Light II.” The narrator returns to his hometown, but he can’t conjure the same sense of wonder; “he now sees” his old home “through a dead man’s eyes.” In the final lines, he “prays that he won’t live to see/the death of everything that’s wild.”
Experiencing wildness requires being present. In order to feel it, you need to pay attention to the strangeness that exists in familiar places. “Deep Blue” describes a New Year’s party in 2000, where everyone watches “the turn of the century/collapsed on a tiny screen.” The guests don’t notice what their own town feels like at the turn of the century, how it’s changing and growing in unexpected ways. All the attention rests on a tiny, pixelated screen where, supposedly, the big event takes place. The narrator goes outside and briefly senses a wildness lurking in the night. He flashes back to a childhood memory of feeling bored, tired and “barely alive” until a burst of music came “from the speakers of a passing car.” The song brings foreign meaning that breaks through the boredom and complacency; it’s wild. The “memory fades,” and the narrator loses access to the wild. Meanwhile, the smooth, nocturnal music flows peacefully forward, reminding us of how fast a moment can slip by.
Mostly, “Deep Blue” works as a companion piece to “Half Light I.” Both songs transport listeners into a scene and inside a narrator’s head. Both songs explore how that person deals with change, both personal and societal. To an extent, the listener can decide how to feel about the narrator, who occasionally comes off as bratty or entitled. But at the end of “Deep Blue,” Arcade Fire makes a strange choice which changes the tone. In the last verse of “Deep Blue,” Win Butler breaks the fourth wall, and makes an appeal to the audience, telling the listener to “put your cell phone down for a while.”
Until now, the evils described by the album were forces bigger than any one person. Capitalist systems destroy communities, empty towns, and develop wildlands while ordinary people sleep and work. “Deep Blue” introduces two ideas. First, the problem with society is not just unfair systems but people, in general, becoming less patient, less connected and less aware of each other. Second, you, personally, can become corrupted by modernity, and you are responsible for avoiding it. It’s a religious framing of societal problems – the idea that a whole town, community, or country can go to shit because everyone’s been tempted by the devil.
“We Used to Wait” leans into the idea of technology as a corrupting influence. Statements like “we used to sleep at night/before the flashing lights and the beep in our brains” describe the internet as a pernicious force that must be resisted. Like “Deep Blue,” the song frames political and cultural change as a collective personal failure. If only we were more patient!
Unlike previous songs, “We Used to Wait” insists that you relate to the narrator. Songs like “Half Light I and II,” “Suburban War,” and most of “Deep Blue” come from a highly specific point of view: a Suburban young adult trying to find a place to live and a community to connect with after the financial crisis. The listener can choose to identify with that point of view, or not. In contrast, Arcade Fire presents “We Used to Wait” as a universal American anthem, with unspecific lyrics and a sing-along chorus. The video invites you to use Google Street View to find the house you grew up, so you can relate the vague lyrics to your own specific nostalgia.
"Rococo" is another song where moralizing trumps political commentary. The track ties into one of the album’s key themes: the horror of needless growth. Rococo is an architecture style characterized by extreme, purposeless intricacy, fancy designs for the sake of fancy designs, and lots and lots of gold leaf. In rococo architecture, as in capitalism, growth is its own reward. You don’t need a reason to expand your business, or add more pillars to that building: more stuff is, by definition, better stuff.
The song starts with the image of young adults (tech bros or business students, judging by the mention of suits) congregating on the city streets. Like tame animals begging for food, the kids kiss up to authority figures, trying to impress adults with “great big words that they don’t understand.” The song introduces more and more apocalyptic imagery to describe how the “modern kids” will continue to pursue growth pointlessly and recklessly (“they’ll build it up just to burn it back down”). The song turns on the nightmarish image of packs of young rich kids chanting “rococo, rococo” like a well-dressed zombie army. The hushed repetition and high Psycho-like violin passages remind me of a horror movie.
But a clear-eyed, smart satire wouldn’t be so contemptuous of people, or so cruel for the sake of being cruel. The youths described in the song aren’t just overly focused on growth, they’re also stupid (“saying great big words that they don’t understand”), kiss ups (compared to animals “who will eat right out of your hand”), and killers who burn buildings without thinking about who’s inside. The narrator doesn’t perceive the young adults as humans; they’re ignorant, destructive animals, like ants or rats. And, because the narrator doesn’t understand youth culture, he’s afraid of what he sees as pointless growth by people who don’t know what’s important in life.
“Rococo" is a bitter little song wrapped in a hypnotic indie-pop package. The music feels like it’s straining, adding more elements in the same high-pitched range, building to a crescendo that never breaks (but eventually crashes into high, scratchy static). It’s angsty and unsettled, prickly as a hedgehog.
The Suburbs is narrated by someone who knows something’s wrong but can’t quite put his finger on what. And, yes, rampant capitalism and technology addiction and the loss of place-based communities all contribute to the uneasy, unhappy vibe of the album. But none of those broad societal issues explain the generalized hopelessness Win Butler channels on “The Suburbs,” the sense that nothing in the world will ever make sense or feel right again. Is the problem out-of-control capitalism, inequality, and environmental degradation? Or is it just that we need to get off our phones? For Arcade Fire, it feels like all the bad stuff blends and congeals into a bland, uniform heap of badness, something I imagine like the island of trash in the Pacific.
As a 17-year-old, I felt both seen and excluded by “The Suburbs,” which captured some of my experiences while implying that my generation (because of changing times and our collective technology addiction) can’t really have authentic experiences. Which is strange, since “The Suburbs” talks about experiences shared by many older millennials (people just a few years older than me). It was extremely popular with the indie crowd at my high school, the same precocious, privileged hipster kids Arcade Fire mocks on songs like "Rococo." It’s an album that speaks for us, but also looks down on us.
The Suburbs adopts a busy, grand, ornate form of rock that echoes the unsettled tone in lyrics. While it is definitely a rock album, Arcade Fire rarely strip back the instrumentation for a solo or a breakdown. Instead, their songs build relentlessly, piling up more and more stuff: more echoing backing vocals, more strings, more layers of reverbed-touched synths. The pile-up of instrumentation echoes the endless, spiralling growth of the suburbs. The Suburbs has all the elements of anthemic, powerful rock music; it’s just that the shredding guitars and soaring violins get complicated by layers of additional instrumentation. Chugging electric guitars crash in to propel songs like “Empty Room,” but the fast, frantic parts of the instrumentation – the fluttery, insistent strings and breakneck drums – never pull back to give the guitar any space. The frenetic elements of the track convey the anxiety that often underlies more powerful emotions. Like Arcade Fire’s violins, anxiety continues on in the background, interfering with moments that should be filled entirely with sadness or joy. More generally, the layered sound of The Suburbs means that every song conveys overlapping, contradictory emotions. Feelings, needs and impulses expand to fill the mix, just like suburban sprawl expands into the horizon.
But the swirling intricacy of the music has another result: it neuters any potentially cathartic moments. The songs never give themselves over to pure sadness, or joy, or rage. Strong emotions seem more like abstract ideas than reality. The same intricacy that makes Arcade Fire’s soundscapes nuanced and mysterious can also make them seem rambling and pointless. The album’s a circle that both starts and ends with (different versions of) the song “The Suburbs.” When you reach the last song, so similar to the first, there’s a sense that the narrator hasn’t learned or resolved anything. When I listen to The Suburbs, I often feel like I’m descending into one of those mazes that continues infinitely in a spiral – there’s no way out, you can only go deeper.
I have a roundabout way of working through problems. I start by trying to diagnose my own unhappiness. I find more and more reasons I might be unhappy, the more abstract the better. When something’s really bothering me, I can spend an hour expounding on unhappy things before zeroing in on the cause of my sadness. “The Suburbs” – particularly, the songs set in modern times – remind me of someone working through that process. "We Used to Wait" is ostensibly about technology, but it doesn’t feel like the technology’s really the issue. It’s like watching an obviously unhappy older relative rant about how kids these days are always on their phones. That’s obviously not the real issue, just a symptom of some larger loneliness. The real issue is hard to pinpoint since it’s spread over a variety of topics, some objectively important, some not. The Suburbs is not really about a loss of place; it’s about the sort of generalized, hard-to-locate depression you feel when you’re not connected to anything. It’s an ungroundedness, a dislocation.