Monday, February 14, 2011


I had a different post in the works for this week, but in honor of Arcade Fire's well-deserved Grammy for Album of the Year last night I decided to shuffle in a post inspired by the album that won them the award-- The Suburbs. Arcade Fire excel at producing albums that capture the spirit of a moment in their lives, and their true gift is that they so often capture a moment in yours, too. With that in mind, this post will be a less literal look at its particular state-- Texas-- than some of the past ones have been. This has also been one of the hardest posts for me to formulate; I'm not sure I can capture the spirit of such a complex album in a few paragraphs, but I'll do my best.

That said, let's start with the one concrete reference to Texas that The Suburbs offers. In 'City with No Children,' lead singer Win Butler sings, "I dreamt I drove home to Houston on a highway that was underground/There was no light that we could see as we listened to the sound of the engine failing." Thematically, the album focuses on suburban expansion, nostalgia for childhood, and the alienation resulting from change, ideas easily applied more broadly than to just Texas. But Win and brother Will, AF's energetic drummer, are Houston natives, so it's safe to assume that the memories of a suburban childhood are at least somewhat inspired by that city.

Before we get started then, a quick look at Houston. In light of an abundance of space to expand and relatively lax zoning laws, Houston is a massive urban area. In 2009, NPR reported, "The city of Houston covers 620 square miles...You could put inside the city limits of Houston, simultaneously...the cities of Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago and Detroit." I've been to Houston and I knew it was big, but I had no idea it had reached such a prodigious size. The picture above is of a Houston suburb in 2006-- imagine 620 miles of that with the bland concrete of Houston's downtown and you'll understand how Win and Will remember their hometown with such loneliness; for such a huge place it has very little character. I found it interesting that even the title of that photo,"Sprawl Houston Suburb 2006," and the NPR article, "Texas Sized Sprawl: No End in Sight," pick up on the central theme of The Suburbs.

The album centers on a series of paired songs, including opener and closer 'The Suburbs' and 'The Suburbs (continued),' 'Half Light' I and II, and 'Sprawl' I and II. 'Sprawl I (Flatland)' picks up where 'City' leaves off, with the narrator's return to his home. It's easy to imagine the Houston suburb pictured above:

Took a drive into the sprawl
To find the house where we used to stay in
Couldn't read the number in the dark
You said, "Let's save it for another day."

Took a drive into the sprawl
To find the places we used to play
It was the loneliest day of my life
You're talking at me but I'm still far away

Let's take a drive
Through the sprawl
Through these towns they built to change
Then you said, the emotions are dead
It's no wonder that you feel so strange

One of the most rewarding things about The Suburbs as a complete album rather than just a series of singles is the way lyrical themes return over and over during the 16 tracks. The idea of a town "built to change" surfaces again in 'Suburban War' with the lines, "This town's so strange/they built it to change/and while we're sleeping all the streets get rearranged." AF's portrayal of the suburbs is as a place without the ability to connect to the life of an individual. Every image of the suburbs, where "dead shopping malls rise/like mountains beyond mountains," is one of division and loss, whether of innocence, friendship, or place. Even the city center itself, usually thought of as a vital, lively place, is sapped by movement toward the uniformity of the suburbs. 'City,' 'We Used to Wait,' and 'Rococo' focus on the notion of a "wilderness downtown," where the music scene has devolved into a shallow popularity contest of fad bands. "They build it up just to burn it back down," Butler dismisses the "modern kids" of 'Rococo.' The remaining city-dwellers are engaged in meaningless wars over commercialized products, even as they slip further into the sprawl. It's a common metaphor, but the sprawl represents the loss of individuality, or even the choice to be an individual. The opponents in the 'Suburban War' are "businessmen," "the markets," "the modern kids" who think life in suburbia is ideal.

What makes the nondescript portrayal of suburban sprawl especially wrenching is the way AF pairs it with memories of childhood, a theme that they bring forward from debut album Funeral. 'City with No Children' is the most obvious choice to discuss this theme, which is often connected with the idea of accumulation of wealth and urban expansion. Butler describes the city as "a garden left for ruin by a millionaire inside of a private prison." 'Half Light II' culminates with the observation, "This city's changed so much since I was a little child/Pray to God I won't live to see the death of everything that's wild." Childhood becomes a mirror for freedom-- creative and spatial-- that is lost when we buy into the notion of suburban life as an ideal. AF frequently portrays children as inherently wiser than adults because they embrace their own beliefs without molding them to social norms. "My old friends/I can remember when/You cut your hair/I never saw you again/Now the cities we live in/Could be distant stars/and I search for you in every passing car." The friends who cut their hair are the ones who have been lost to the sprawl, "divide[d] into tribes" by the music scene eschewed in 'Rococo.' AF returns to the past, the value of "wasted hours," the simplicity and excitement of receiving letters, biking down streets in the middle of the night.

Meditations on childhood in AF are in a way meditations on their style of music. They've long refused major label contracts and produce dense albums without obvious hit singles; they are the independent children, fleeing the suburbs on their bikes in 'Sprawl II' or tunneling through the neighborhood snow in Funeral's 'Neighborhood I.' So it's no surprise that he redemptive force in The Suburbs comes from the theme of escape, often figurative rather than literal, although the constant return to cars and travel in the lyrics suggests a physical departure from the sprawl too, encouragements to "Grab your mother's keys/we leave tonight." 'Sprawl II' and 'Month of May' comment directly on the creative process of making music and the challenges that arise in a society that demands mass culture. 'Sprawl II' opens with R├ęgine Chassagne singing, "They heard me singing and they told me to stop/Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock."

Though creativity can be a challenge in the suburbs, songs about the creation of music are some of the most passionate on the album. 'Month of May' is one of the most rock-oriented songs the group has ever done, though I think I prefer the ebullient synths of 'Sprawl II,' an incredibly perfect match for Chassagne's stage presence. When I describe The Suburbs to people, they often come away with the mistaken impression that it's just a depressing album about the loss of innocence and individuality, but these songs show that it's the opposite-- a mustering of courage to fight against the homogenization of suburbia. It makes me think again about the album as a meditation on the state of music itself, and the resurgence of creative independence now that the state of the industry is changing. In 'Month of May,' "a violent wind [blows] the wires away" as the band contemplates making an album about "2009, I felt then." The wires, as a representation of the technological age of music and the confining connectedness of the suburbs, prevent them from making a record until the natural force of the wind, something sublimated by the encroachment of suburban sprawl on the wilderness, destroys them. 'May' is one of the angriest songs on the album but also one of the most hopeful; AF believes that bands have a renewed hope of making the kind of music they want to. There's an opportunity to return to the unstructured innocence and wisdom of childhood.

Having talked so much about the suburbs generally, I should return to Texas. Every other song I could think of about Texas involved some kind of state pride that definitely doesn't translate in The Suburbs. These are songs about cowboys on the range, expansive vistas of desert-- what we imagine when we think of Texas, but which is no longer a reality as it becomes home to massive urban centers like Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio. Perhaps the thematic discrepancy arises in a generation gap; a lot of the other songs about Texas are, expectedly, country, a more traditional genre that's still heavily reliant on old-school music industry practices. It's also important that AF chooses Texas as a touchstone for commentary on the suburbs and uniformity because it's a state where expansion creates such a dichotomy between city and wilderness. Traditionally thought of as a frontier because of its historical significance as a disputed border state, Texas is now conquering itself through constant expansion, eating up its vast spaces with ever-growing cities as it once drained oil in a There Will Be Blood-style orgy of consumption. No wonder AF worries about sprawl with Texans chomping down massive amounts of land and energy even as other parts of the nation cut back. Known for its desire to be bigger than anywhere else, Texas is the perfect antithesis for a band who doesn't want to be bigger, but just wants to be themselves. Texan devotion to industry and expansion, with total disregard for beauty or personality, makes it an ideal villain in a story about retaining the past and its values.

As a side note, it's interesting to me that one city in Texas has surfaced as a center for the kind of creative freedom that AF embraces. Austin, home of breakout-band showcase SXSW, has become an enclave of musical talent spanning a remarkable array of genres. Austin's music scene has the kind of organic feel that's missing in Houston generally. As a commentary, The Suburbs could be a call for more development in that direction as well as a general reminiscence about the past of music, something that makes the album especially meaningful as a Grammy winner over mass-produced musicians like Lady Gaga, Eminem, and Katy Perry. The layers of meaning in this album are what makes it so special, and I hope I've captured at least some of that in this entry-- childhood, creativity, cities, suburbia, nostalgia-- it's more to take in than perhaps can be said in one inconsequential blog post. It took AF a double album to say it all, so maybe I'm just being presumptuous thinking I can even start to understand. But that's the beauty of their music-- when I listen to it, I feel like I do.

Having written this, I feel like I've barely scratched the surface of what AF has to say; I'm sure I'll come back to this entry with edits. The only real way to understand everything this band wants to tell you is to hear the music itself. This blog isn't really about music recommendations, but if you haven't heard The Suburbs, give it a shot. Give all of their albums a shot. Arcade Fire aren't signed to a major label, they're making the kind of music they want to make, and it shows in their enthusiasm and the depth of their creativity. Plus, even Kanye West tweeted about how much he loved them after the Grammys last night and he hates everyone, so you know they must be something special.

Sprawl II (live)
The Wilderness Downtown (interactive film for 'We Used to Wait')
Suburban War

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