Register Monday | October 18 | 2021

On Arcade Fire's The Suburbs

Took a drive into the sprawl / To find the places we used to play

One of rock and roll’s most unfortunate tropes is the belief that it’s a young person’s game, forcing even well-aged acts to write with whatever remaining adolescent voice they have inside of them. At times, it feels like there is infinite space at the top of the culture canon for youthful guns blazing but only room for a handful of acts – your U2s, your Radioheads – that address adult themes and ideas with honesty and poetic candor.

A number of albums this year, most notably American Slang and High Violet, have struck a chord with me because they wear the weight of growing up. They’re mature records in the best of ways, and though those two particular albums address adulthood in different fashions – one with the energy of the early evening, the other with restraint of a 2 a.m. comedown – they’re both filled with songs starting to come to grips with the transition away from the passions of youth.

I’m starting to feel that same transition. For all the things in my life I enjoy and cherish, I do feel my world shrinking in on me a bit as I get closer to 30 and further away from 20. I’m moving on from old friends and losing touch with others. The possibilities that once seemed endless become more finite with each passing day. I’m increasingly concerned with doing instead of thinking or considering. There’s no wife or kids in my immediate future, but for the first time I’m becoming conscious of their possibility.

Over the weekend, a friend read me an excerpt from the valedictorian speech that I delivered at my high school graduation. Never before have I felt so distant from my previous self; it’s like I barely recognized the kid that wrote it. I long ago traded the speech’s world-conquering optimism for a more cynical, contented disposition and in that moment, hearing my own words fed back to me nine years later, the gap between who I was and who I’ve become felt cavernous and vast.

It was as if I was having a David Byrne moment: “How did I get here?”

Sometimes I can’t believe it / I’m moving past the feeling

It’s little wonder, then, with this backdrop, that The Suburbs has hit me pretty hard. Heavy with sonic sprawl and soul-searching uncertainty, the record not only answers the question of whether Arcade Fire deserve to be among the acclaimed company that Funeral prematurely threw them in with – the answer is “yes” – but it’s the band’s signal that they’re uninterested in treading the same ground over and over again. There are plenty of thematic callbacks to both Funeral and Neon Bible, but the perspective has changed. Rather than Funeral’s in-the-moment youthfulness or Neon Bible’s post-adolescent fear of the future, The Suburbs is a collection of songs by adults, for adults, wrestling with how they ended up where they are.

It’s all laid out on the album’s title track, which both opens the record and closes it with a quiet reprise. Nearly all the themes that flow throughout The Suburbs are introduced: space, dreaming, light and darkness, memory, family, time, identity. The chorus speaks to a disbelief that the verses try to answer, the song’s protagonist trying to come to terms with “moving past the feeling” and leaving behind the screaming passions they found in their suburban upbringing. Most of the song is in the past tense; it’s only in the final verse that vocalist Win Butler moves to the present, expressing not only anxiety about his eventual fatherhood but also a fear that perhaps that youthful rush is gone and never coming back.

Several of the song’s lyrics repeat in “Suburban War,” which appears at the album’s midpoint (Note: on vinyl, the song moves to the penultimate slot, granting it an equally-important but different role in the album’s structure.) It’s seemingly a continuation of the same conversation, but this time the protagonist speaks to their counterpart after a falling out has taken place: over tastes, somewhat, but fundamentally over the suburbs itself and whether it’s a world that can really be escaped. The song that solidifies one of The Suburbs’ key questions: Can you really make a clean break from your past?

I need the darkness, someone please cut the lights!

A number of lyrics on the album suggest that escape is possible, but time and time again, they’re undercut. In “Modern Man,” destination is ripped away from its eternally-waiting protagonist in a dream. In “City With No Children,” in another dream, the car’s engine gives out. “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” makes the question of escape quite literal: “Can we ever get away from the sprawl?”

All of this risks coming across as shallow and self-indulgent middle-class whining. After all, is suburban life really so bad that it’s worth so much angst? But thankfully, Arcade Fire are accustomed to finding melodrama in the ordinary and familiar; that sense of being able to find your own experiences blown up in their songs is one of the reasons Funeral resonated with so many people.

Moreover, the record doesn’t have a dogmatically negative view of suburban life. On the contrary; it almost seems as if the characters’ quest to find meaning in the suburbs is more of a quest to find a lost sense of self. The suburbs are merely a symptom of a larger, pre-packaged adult world, one where human touch is hard to come by. “We Used to Wait” hits this note the hardest, and though it’s perhaps the most conventionally Arcade Fire-ish song on the album (despite a great electronic beat in the pre-chorus), it’s instantly one of the record’s highlights and already a centrepiece of the band’s live show.

Linked with this idea of the adult world as vacancy is the album’s weird inversion of the typical light/dark motif. Normally, darkness brings with it ideas of fear and ignorance, with light offering knowledge and realization. But on tracks like “Sprawl II” and “Ready to Start,” characters cry out for or embrace the darkness. And in “Half Light I,” the light deceives, breathing life into empty houses. This, combined with the extensive use of dreams as a space for epiphany, suggests that there’s as much truth for these characters in their imagination – if not more – than there is in the realized adult world they’ve ended up in. No wonder they spend so much time flashing back to their childhood.

And now I see, we’re still kids in buses, longing to be free

Some critics have already joked that you could make a drinking game around how often Win and Regine sing the word “kids” on The Suburbs. Its overuse is important, though, for a couple of reasons. One is that it leaves no doubt that this is an adult record, that the childhood memories are being recalled, not lived in the moment. But another is that the separation between the characters and their past calls into question the accuracy of those recollections.

On two songs – “Rococo” and “Month of May” – the protagonists cast scorn upon a new generation of modern kids: “They seem wild but they are so tame / They’re moving towards you with their colors all the same.” This idea of false toughness, of emotional sameness, keeps being thrown upon the new generation throughout the album, in stark contrast to the colourful depictions of the characters’ own childhood. Those recollections are either wistful – like in “Wasted Hours – or, in the “Sprawl” songs, romantic, even when lit by police lights (a nice callback to the imagery of “Laika”).

But is this gap between the kids and adults really that wide? “Empty Room” suggests that the adult world is equally as colourless. And in “City With No Children,” Butler wonders if the cynical adulthood he once rejected – millionaires quoting sermons – isn’t so far off from where he himself has ended up.

It’s a particularly telling line considering Neon Bible’s lyrical bent, which often put Butler in the role of street preacher, ranting about the end of days and impending doom. One of the reasons that The Suburbs is a more compelling album than Bible – perhaps lyrically the band’s best – is that the threats are as much internal as they are external, and any self-righteousness is undercut by crippling doubt. The sprawl may be creeping ever closer to its characters, but they equally as worried by their own failings and doubts.

Dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains

Revisionist Arcade Fire history has started to consider Neon Bible a misstep, which belittles both the record’s quality and its importance in the band’s discography; it’s Funeral’s dark mirror, challenging that record’s joys with bold, apocalyptic imagery. But there’s no question that the record was more a twist on the band’s formula – an inversion, perhaps – than a shift.

On The Suburbs, Arcade Fire start to stretch themselves. Some of the artistic decisions merely take the band deeper into the 1980s post-punk that has always been at their core. But several of the album’s more inspiring tracks also start to encompass a strong electronic influence, from the breakdown near the end of “Ready to Start” to the U2-ish four-on-the-floor beat of “Half Light II (No Celebration).”

But these just feel like teases for the record’s stunning climax. Indeed, “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” may be the most exciting song Arcade Fire have laid to tape since “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels).” While Funeral’s first track thrilled because it offered promise of the album to follow, “Sprawl II” thrills because it offers promise of the career to follow. It’s astonishing proof that Arcade Fire – as a sound, as an idea, as a band – have few, if any, limits. Over a steady, driving beat, Régine Chassagne, neglected in Neon Bible’s darkness, gloriously belts out suburban anxieties and childhood nostalgia, backed by rolling 1980s synth riffs and tinkling piano chords. It’s an experience that’s part Blondie, part The Knife, and yet still somehow all Arcade Fire.

It’s also one of the album’s few moments of glorious release, which may disappoint some listeners still enamored with Funeral’s sound. Aside from “Sprawl II,” only “Empty Room” recalls the frantic energy of “Crown of Love” or “Power Out.” But if Neon Bible suggested that Funeral’s joy was unsustainable, The Suburbs suggests that its all-out energy doesn’t last either. At some point, we all become subtle, restrained. And instead of killing big, gigantic moments, we start dying a bit more softly.

If I could have it back / All the time that we wasted / I’d only waste it again / You know I’d love to waste it again

The reprise of “The Suburbs” at album’s end offers more than simply a sense of coming full-circle; in some ways, it offers the record’s final resignation. Presented with the hypothetical possibility of rewriting one’s own history, our protagonist not only suggests that it’s inevitable that they’ve ended up where they are, but that they really wouldn’t want it any other way.

Is it a defeatist ending? I’m not so sure. If anything, I find it calmly reassuring. Maybe it’s where we all end up eventually. We can grasp for visions in the dark all we want, but at some point we have to come to terms with who we are, how we got here and (from there) figure out where we go next. Perhaps resignation is too strong a word; “acceptance” might be preferable.

And it’s an acceptance that doesn’t negate the journey that comes before. If there is anxiety and uncertainty to be found in “dead shopping malls” and “towns built to change,” there’s also memories, passions, moments of living, breathing life. The Suburbs’ final lines don’t deny all this; if anything, it’s a final reminder, a cry to hold close the echoes of our youth, the “wild,” as we move into our adult world with its adult concerns.

Six years ago, in “Wake Up,” Arcade Fire sang: “If the children don’t grow up / our bodies get bigger but our hearts get torn up.” The Suburbs has no shortage of torn hearts, but they don’t feel beyond repair. Stitched up with the strength of a reconstructed past, the seams hold together.