Of Sprawls and Malls
When I was a kid, growing up in Canberra, they built a giant shopping center in the South of town, way out past the fringes of suburbia. It was, literally, in the middle of nowhere. I remember being driven down there on its opening, in a car for what felt like forever, and, then, suddenly, seeing this monolith rising out of the nothingness, as if a mirage in a desert. Child that I was, I didn't understand why you'd stick this thing in the middle of nowhere, didn't get that this was suburban planning at its essence; these hulking structures of hyper-capitalism akin to seeds sown in a field of dreams.
It was built, and eventually they came, those frontier settlers who longed to live in the valley of the shopping center. Inevitably, it became not a fringe wasteland, but just outer suburbia. Then just suburbia. Now, it's probably considered creeping close to inner Canberra. The sprawl kept heading, southwards, hemmed by borders both natural and contrived.
Wastelands: Suburban and Artistic
It's not glamorous to admit that this landscape was familiar from your childhood, but these vast expanses of soulless sprawl —unending streets of alienation, built to be piloted only by cars— are a common experience uniting untold masses in the modern Western world. United by a sense of shared shame, artistic depictions of suburbia have rarely been interesting. David Lynch's movie Blue Velvet, a hysterical catalog of shamed secrets hidden behind a suburban-development's Potemkin village façade, is the landmark that can't be budged, the film that's informed countless imitators, with Alan Ball being only the most acclaimed.
It's against this backdrop, this history, this phenomena of habitation, that Win Butler —leader of epic Canadian rockers Arcade Fire— attempts to author a lyrical study of The Suburbs anew. Never at a lack for ambition, Arcade Fire's album-long song-cycle delivers a double barrel-load of gumption: the band hoping not simply that this is their defining album, but the definitive study of a generation, couched in the landscape they grew up in.
Don't You (Forget About You)
Working with such unchecked ambition, Arcade Fire cite ambitious sources: Neil Young, Springsteen, Bowie, Bright Eyes. The grandeur can be painfully earnest, like on "We Used to Wait," which brings to life Butler's lament for the lost idleness of his youth with insistent piano, lights-on-the-horizon strings, squalling Edge-like guitar work, and cascading backing vocals. In other, more blessed moments, there's a sense of humor about this bigness. Summoning the sounds of the band's own cul-de-sac'd childhoods, "Half Light II (No Celebration)" and "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)" recall the synthed-out excess of '80s movie soundtracks, where every Simple Minds or Pat Benatar song enshrined school-dances into eternity.
The sheer joy evident in Régine Chassagne's every utterance in "Sprawl II" —her star turn reminiscent of a girl with a hairbrush, singing along to Blondie in her bedroom— is sadly absent for much of The Suburbs. Where Funeral, Arcade Fire's catalyzing debut, radiated a raggedy life-force —standing in joyous defiance of mortality; championing hope in the face of hopelessness— The Suburbs is an album of measured, considered contemplation.
On "City with No Children," past optimism has given way to pessimism. Where he'd previously been out —especially with 2007's Neon Bible— to skewer Christian hypocrisy, Butler is no longer sure about casting stones: "You never trust a millionaire/Quoting the sermon on the mount," he sings, before turning the verse back on the man in the mirror: "I used to think I was not like them/But I'm beginning to have my doubts."
The Suburbs Without, The Suburbs Within
And this is the grand lyrical turn of The Suburbs. Where Butler was once one of the kids in suburbia —sneaking out at night, dreaming of escape— now he's come back to where he grew up, as an adult, and the view is frightening; a man looking in the mirror, wondering if he's become his parents, if the ideals that once burned so bright have been lost in 'success,' in growing up.
On "Wasted Hours," it becomes crystal clear. As Butler sings aloud the album's themes in the universal images of the suburban frontier ("At first they built the road then they built the town/That's why we're still driving around and around"), it's hard not to notice the shift when he then sings "And all we see are kids in the buses longing to be free."
All of two albums ago, Butler was still, at heart, one of those kids. He was, figuratively, in the back of the car, unable to comprehend why they erected a colossal mall at the ends of the Earth, a place way beyond the power of your bicycle. Now, Butler can see the perspective of town-planners; can make sense of this landscape through lyrics. Driving through his old haunts, looking out at the landscape, at the sheer ugliness of suburban sprawl, he still doesn't like the view. But, this time, the view he likes the least is when he looks within.
Record Label: Merge
Release Date: August 3, 2010