Music

An Ode to Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs  

Arcade Fire performs at the Capitol Records building in Hollywood in 2013. (Gene Blevins/Reuters)
Ten years later after its original August release, it still captures the complex emotional character of the end of summer -- and of childhood.

August might be the first experience children have of the end times.

How else to explain the brutal finality that cuts short the freedom of summer, when seemingly endless days are filled with wonderfully aimless pleasures: trips to the neighborhood pool, romps through the woods, games with friends, neighbors (often one and the same)? The sun sets kindly on such days, and night invites its own joys: more games (with the added thrill of darkness), bonfires, marshmallow smores, all set to a soundtrack of chirping insects. For a while, it seems like it could last forever; days seem to pass in a haze of timeless bliss.

But the end comes slowly, then suddenly. First, the back-to-school ads, creeping onto television and the radio. Then the looming presence of summer work for school, perhaps long put off. And finally, unfairly, unjustly, school itself draws near. When it becomes easy to start counting the days before classes begin, summer is already over. Try as they might to stretch out what time remains, there’s nothing children can do to make summer last forever.

This is the time of year we find ourselves in now. And while perhaps the world has changed since my own childhood (one not all might have shared), and undoubtedly the world is quite different now than it was just a year ago, I imagine even the children facing a return to some kind of school are beginning to sense summer’s end. It is a strange time, even for those of us who no longer really get a summer at all. For us, it retains emotional power in part due to the way the academic calendar shapes the world around it — and in part due to the way our childhoods imprint themselves in our memories and on our psyches. For us — or at least for me — this time keeps a kind of twilight evanescence, at once recalling its origin in the past and forcing the contemplation of what things will themselves fade into memory as each summer did then and as all of them have now.

The resultant heady mix of nostalgia and sentiment is hard to convey properly. But one album pulled it off almost perfectly: Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, which turns ten this month. The Canadian indie rock band had mixed orchestral rock and lyrical reckoning of adult life with childhood experiences before: Their debut album, 2004’s Funeral, was produced in the aftermath of deaths in the families of several members, and features wistful, stirring, and anthemic recollections of youth set against painful yet necessary acceptance of maturation and the passage of time. After a brief and middling detour into a kind of late Bush era meandering angst with 2007’s Neon Bible, the band returned to its roots somewhat while also venturing into strikingly new ground with The Suburbs, a simultaneously nostalgic yet distanced examination of an upbringing in those eponymous subdivisions. It quickly earned a sterling reputation, debuting at No.1 on the Billboard Top 200 album chart, landing on many critics’ year-end best-of lists, and winning a Grammy for best album. Listening to it now, its glory has hardly faded. Indeed, its original August release now seems undeniably intentional, as scarcely any work of art I’ve encountered better captures the complex emotional character of the end of summer — and of childhood.

Band member Win Butler (no relation, unfortunately) described The Suburbs “as neither a love letter to, nor an indictment of, the suburbs — it’s a letter from the suburbs.” Win and his brother Will, also in the band, grew up in a suburb of Houston. On the album, the relationship between place and time is straightforward: The suburbs are a stand-in for the now-distant childhood of the brothers — and of everyone with a similar background. Lyrically, it mostly alternates between affectionate reminisces for times long past and disbelief in their actually being gone now. All of this is present from the get-go in the title track, whose propulsive backbeat carries along a bevy of mixed emotions. The song recalls the suburbs as the place where its narrator “learned to drive,” who also dreams of “still screaming/and running through the yard.” Yet this unusual song’s refrain is: “Sometimes I can’t believe it/I’m moving past the feeling” — expressing a kind of incredulity that, whatever value and significance these memories may have, they and even the feelings associated with them can become only distant echoes with the passage of time. Other songs capture this bitter nostalgia as well. “Wasted Hours” recalls a time “before we knew/Where to go and what to do,” much as “We Used To Wait” notes that “we used to waste hours just walkin’ around.” The scope for directionless freedom seemed endless. Ah, but seemed: All the childish revelries are, inevitably, described in the past tense, almost unbelievingly, as receding memories rather than lived experiences. Even as, in the album’s bookending reprise of its opening track, Win sings of the time that has passed, “If I could have it back/You know I would love to waste it again,” we know neither he nor we can.

There is also a related current, throughout the album, of unease with the trappings of modern, adult life — but also of realization that the trappings of childhood can no longer serve as an escape. The former is clearest in “Modern Man,” which describes the disjoint experience of life today as “like a record skipping.” And the latter is clearest in “Sprawl I (Flatland),” which describes a journey “to find the house where we used to stay” and “to find the places we used to play.” But it ends in failure, a mistake. The house numbers can’t be read in the dark, and the singer relates that the day of seeing the old places “was the loneliest day of my life.” In the world of The Suburbs, childhood is over for good, and trying to bring it back to life is only going to reinforce its passing. It’s not even that we change while places stay the same; sometimes, even the places change or disappear, and we’re left with just what we can remember.

This focus is not to downplay the music itself, which sees the band at its most proficient and versatile. Songs vary between instrumental focus, lead singer, style, and genre almost effortlessly, and sometimes within the same composition. Each choice is deliberate, reinforcing the tone and purpose of every song. The elegiac return of “Sprawl I (Flatland)” features the repeated notes of an unaccompanied string instrument. The drums and guitar of “Wasted Hours” are sparse yet languid, attesting to the rhythms of a lazy summer day. You could call the songs catchy, sure; from Funeral onward, Arcade Fire has shown a gift with melody that can turn songs which border on therapy sessions into anthems (think of that album’s “Wake Up”). But the songs on The Suburbs don’t so much get stuck in one’s head as haunt it, inspiring inward ruminations of one’s own.

The exception to this is “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains), the album’s denouement. A straightforwardly catchy and bouncy pop-dance number sung by Régine Chassagne, Win’s wife, this song is a deliberate departure from the rest of the album, both musically and lyrically. Setting aside the attachment to childhood and to the suburbs in which the Butlers’ own childhoods took place, this song has Chassagne chafe at and ultimately reject the strictures of suburban life. Castigating it as a “sprawl” where she has no purpose, where people tell her to stop singing and “just punch the clock,” she looks longingly on city lights she espies from afar that are “calling at me, come and find your kind.” The obvious thrust of the song is an escape from the confines of the suburbs to the freedom of city life; the song ends in such a way as to suggest the success of the singer’s escape, leaving the suburbs behind.

As catchy as this penultimate song is, it strikes me as the only false note of the album. It may be a common social pattern, both today and throughout human history, to seek a kind of liberation in city life. Yet the end of life is not to abandon responsibilities, but to manage them. And anyway, you’d be hard pressed to find true escape anywhere. To the extent that any form or mode of life, whether urban or elsewhere, offers a reprieve from obligations, it is not real adulthood but rather a different kind of childhood. It, too, is a phase. One that comes to an end with real maturation, and the onset of adulthood’s true trappings. Maybe even children of one’s own, whose very existence helps turn one out of oneself and out to the wider world, to watch as they make memories of their own and grow up, too. Maybe someday they’ll also have a chance to wonder where all the summers went. A listen to Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs — ideally in August — might help them to figure it out.

Jack Butler is an associate editor at National Review Online.

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