By Conrad Amenta | 12 August 2010
“You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time—back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.”
– Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again
On the face of it The Suburbs seems as dated a manifesto as Wolfe’s own romantic bewilderment and nostalgia, both works yearning for a time before “times changed.” That contention must seem hopelessly naïve to us today. But with time, Arcade Fire’s haunted, melancholy fairytale of a third album becomes their first to look at itself with clear-eyed sobriety, to assess a loss that becomes harder to articulate with the years. The suburbs here serve as an elegant metaphor and lament for vanished youth, youth once captured like lightning in a bottle by this band just a few years ago. If Funeral (2004) was a romantic affirmation of childhood vitality amid death and catastrophe (denial, anger), and Neon Bible (2007) was paranoia arising from a challenged faith (bargaining, depression), The Suburbs is that composed, mature culmination in forlorn adulthood (acceptance). It’s a staid achievement—a soundtrack to unwillingly letting go of the unsustainable, both figurative and literal.
Over the course of these songs Win Butler declares himself alienated first from “modern man” and then “modern kids,” and you have to resist the too-easy temptation to complicate his Prufrock ennui because of the graceful coda to which it contributes. What Butler is ultimately alienated from, as is the case with much modernist affectation, is the artist’s pathology—with himself and what he sees himself becoming. When I first heard the album would be called The Suburbs I braced myself for a smug sentencing of what amounts, at least in my mind, to a Cold War straw man. I wrote things about the complexity of gentrification and how a freshman reprise of No Logo might lecture embarrassingly. It turns out that the suburbs isn’t only a scoped and heartbreaking metaphor, it may also find reinvestment in the notion that, as a modern concept, there is fertile literary ground to be tilled. I never would have thought, especially given contemporary American literature’s ongoing fascination with the fallacy of the traditional family unit, that this subject was anything but exhausted.
There are very few bands working today who can pull off such broad-stroke, picaresque melancholy without sounding cloying, without overreaching or condescending to their audience. The band’s response to this loss of youth—a loss with which most of rock n’ roll seems wholly incapable of dealing, I might add—isn’t retrograde fury, stylized preening, or even conceptual pretension. It’s resignation: “So can you understand? / Why I want a daughter while I’m still young / I wanna hold her hand / And show her some beauty / Before this damage is done / But if it’s too much to ask, it’s too much to ask / Then send me a son.”
This line haunts me—for its sincerity and simultaneous futility, also for the simple way it conveys suburban perpetuity and the decay that represents. Butler is pointing to something so large and so close we can barely see it: that you enjoy what fleeting worth you can though it slips away, or you buy into its destruction wholeheartedly, but that both options—at this juncture in Butler’s life (and my own)—ultimately seem futile. Where Ramones (1976) allowed a teenager to visualize escape from the suburbs, The Suburbs suggests to that same teen, now thirty years old, that you can’t help but take it with you. This is the suburbs as self-legitimizing, as force of nature, as inescapable, as psychology writ large.
Or: if “Wake Up” was the perfect preface to Jonze’s escapist fantasy Where the Wild Things Are, then The Suburbs seems better suited to dystopic Donnie Darko. The infantile magic that was once threaded through-and-through is now selfsame, common, and vaguely menacing. Puzzling and occasionally beautiful, yes, we knowing very little except that things are somehow broken and beyond our control.
It’s almost an anti-Arcade Fire album, or might seem like it for those seeking a “Wake Up” or “No Cars Go,” a shout-out, powerhouse gush of inspiration. But if the suburbs are the site of that lost inspiration, that sad, wallpaper repetition that conveys memories of childhood without containing any of its vital energies, then the record’s dynamism makes sense. After all, they’ve gone from the city in “Power Out” with only children left to “City With No Children.” In place of catharsis Arcade Fire emphasize careful but extremely simple arrangements; intricate and crystalline production; an inexorable track list with impeccable pacing; and a newfound sense of comfort with their occasional electronic flourish, terminating in “Heart of Glass” sound-alike and early fan fave “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains).”
There are many other highlights: the slipstream rock of “Empty Room,” getting just loud enough and just hard enough and being just short enough to make you want to listen to it at least once a day; the Dadaist “Rococo,” which features some of the band’s most intentionally, brilliantly stupid lyrics ever; “Half Light II (No Celebration),” which does Bowie’s “Heroes” better than that bullshit LCD Soundsystem song; the turns of phrase in the chorus of “Ready to Start.” The way “We Used to Wait,” maybe the album’s best song (and most depressed, despite its staccato piano jounce), is buried in the album’s latter half. If Talking Heads are one of the band’s most obvious precedents—for their exuberance and casual alienation and occasional romanticism—then this is Arcade Fire’s More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978).
Even if you’ll brook no metaphors the album is a lasting one, far more so than Neon Bible and perhaps more solid, back-to-front, (and certainly better produced) than Funeral. Perhaps what’s most surprising is that, in an era when bands must produce follow-ups within a couple years lest they be forgotten, this group could produce sixteen songs of comparable quality, distinctly lacking in vanity projects, and stylishly literary in scope. They’ve infused that hoary fear of privilege and conformity with newfound dread, and given us back some bit of our post-millennial anxiety, by doing nothing more than suggest that you can’t really ever get what you want. They do this not with a bang, nor with a whimper, but by presenting it as something truthfully, tellingly equivocal—nebulous and niggling as true loss. What The Suburbs suggests is that The End has come and gone for all of us and we didn’t even notice it happening.