October 28, 2014 by NowhereButPop
Growing up in the Suburbs is a pretty universal experience, one where we’re all presented with the same issues and novelties. We all were confronted with immature relationships, underappreciating the time that we had, and the eventual loss of contact between people we had grown up with and seen every day of our lives. This concept of Suburban Catholicism was lost upon me until I immersed myself in Arcade Fire’s 2010 opus, The Suburbs. Although band leaders, and brothers Win and Will Butler grew up outside of Houston, I still found myself relating to the album in a very intimate and unexpected way.
The Suburbs is my generations’ The Joshua Tree, except whereas U2 wanted to paint a general portrait of Americana and the United States on a macro level, Arcade Fire did the exact opposite. On The Suburbs, they crafted an album based on what they experienced—the suburbs on a micro and personal level. It’s a firsthand account of America, based on the day to day non-dilemmas and first world problems that plague most of our lives, instead of being a vague but all-encompassing CNN depiction of America.
Band leader Win Butler has said that The Suburbs “is neither a love letter to, nor an indictment of the suburbs—it’s a letter from the suburbs”. While I think this is true to a degree, I do believe that there is an inherent comment on living in the suburbs. Despite this claim of neutrality, the album does exhibit two ever-present and omnipotent themes: 1) helplessness in the inevitable passing of time, and 2) trying to reconcile one’s own individuality within the confines of a popular and homogenous culture….a.k.a. peer pressure.
My favorite songs on The Suburbs (“Suburban War”, “Half Light II”, “City with No Children”), either portray the suburbs negatively, or they allow me to project my own negative biases of the suburbs onto them. It was when I had this epiphany that the truth of The Suburbs dawned on me. The truth, is that The Suburbs is a reflexive album; you get out of it exactly what you put into it. For people who grew up loving the suburban experience, they’ll argue that Arcade Fire depict the suburbs positively, while people who grew up resenting the suburbs would think that the band was reflecting negatively on their own experiences.
I’ve always had a rather antagonistic relationship with the suburbs, despite the fact that I’ve been living in the suburbs of New York City for the past 15 years. On the one hand, I’ve met my best friends here, but on the other, I spent 3rd to 9th grade being constantly bullied. It was in the suburbs that I met the girl who I would develop the strongest feelings for, but she’s also someone who hasn’t always been very good to me. What it comes down to, is that the suburbs always wanted something from me, but either I didn’t know what that thing was, or I wasn’t willing to give in to those demands.
Regardless of personal opinions, anyone who grew up in the suburbs can understand the main theme of the album, which above all else, is the passing of time and how we inevitably lose relationships, feelings, and even ourselves to it. The majority of the songs on the album are told in the past tense, as if Win Butler is recollecting his most prominent memories in a wistful manner. On “Rococo”, Butler recollects about wanting to fit in with the so called “modern kids”, while on “City with No Children”, he asserts, albeit in a melancholy manner, that “I have no feelings for you now, now that I know you better”, implying that time has robbed him of his former feelings. But then, the very next line, Butler laments “I wish I could have loved you then before our age was through, and before the world war does with us whatever it will do”, again signifying that despite his feelings, the world and the future have more control over his life than his present feelings do. Not only is Butler proclaiming that the future could manipulate him in a way that would make him not love this girl anymore, but when he looks back on it, he’s remorseful that he didn’t love her as much as he should have, given the fact that there love would prove to be a finite thing. The future cares not for the present, and it will just as easily lay your best laid plans to waste.
That line is one of my favorites across any song or album, because I’ve often felt that same way. Most of the girls I’ve been with, I haven’t seen after our dalliances ended, and sometimes I’ve felt like I didn’t appreciate them or express my feelings for them as much as I should have. The two girls who first come to mind are the only two girls who I would say deserve to slap me across the face, and it’s for the reason that I didn’t give them as much of myself as they deserved. The message behind “City with No Children” is to show that time has a way of making us regret not trying as hard as we should have. Nothing makes us regret our lack of effort more than past relationships, because once their gone, they usually stay gone.
“Half Light II” is another song told in the form of a flashback, with various lines told in the past tense, lines like “Now that San Francisco’s gone”, and “When we watched the markets crash, the promises we made were torn”. At the same time however, the past converges with the present on “Half Light II”. When Butler exclaims “Now that you have left me here, I will never raise my voice” and “Though we knew this day would come, still it took us by surprise”, it seems as if the events of the song are happening as Butler sings them. Someone has just left him, presumably do to his temper, and now some dreadful day that was forewarned has now come to fruition, much to everyone’s unsurprised shock. Whatever this day is, it was something that was always on the distant horizon, but now it has become their present; what was their present is now their past, and their future has become their new present. Anytime you look back and realize how much time has elapsed, it’s always depressing.
Probably the most reminiscent song on the album, “Suburban War” deals with the different paths we all take that pave the way away from the past and into the future. It conveys the notion that the past is always just out of reach, while the future is only a journey away from the present. The lyrics are about different styles and paths that proved to pull friends apart. “My old friends they were so different then”, “Now the music divides us into tribes, you grew your hair so I grew mine”, and “My old friends I can remember when you cut your hair, I never saw you again” are all stories told to the listener about Butler and his friends drifting apart over time. Nothing ever stays static, and over time divisive things pop up that tear friendships apart. On “Suburban War” he’s reflecting on the dissolution of friendships which were caused by conflicting trends that arose in the suburbs.
I’m assuming that these experiences that Butler talks about occurred when he was in junior high, because it was in junior high where kids in my year were at their most factious. These factions arose merely out of trends and not really because anyone believed in them. It was just a bunch of kids doing what they thought they had to do in order to fit in. The emo kids wore all black and only hung out with other emo kids; the skater-punks all listened to Blink 182 and had ridiculous Peppermint Patty haircuts; the gangsta kids listened to hip-hop and wore do-rags. It was like prison, if you didn’t belong to a certain group, you were then fair game for anyone from those groups to pick on. To the emo kids, you’d be a poser, to the skaters you’d be a loser, and to the hip-hop kids you’d either be a pussy or a faggot.
When I hear “Suburban War”, I’m reminded of sixth grade especially, where all of the friends I made that year all went off to join various clicks the very next year. I was never close with any of those kids ever again. More than any other song on the album however, “Suburban War” reminds me of myself and my general feelings towards my own personal experiences growing up in the suburbs on Long Island. Time has a way of changing people, especially for superficial reasons, and time is an especially effective cleaver. If friends get into an argument or a fight, they can patch it up; but very rarely will you reconnect with someone who you just drifted apart with casually over time, especially when you begin to identify with two very different groups.
“Before your war against the suburbs began”, along with the aforementioned line from “City with No Children” are my two favorite lines from The Suburbs, because of my own personal war waged upon the suburbs. It’s an internal war being waged by a disillusioned eightyearold who still isn’t ready to call Huntington his home. It’s a war fought by someone who never felt wanted by the suburbs. My war on the suburbs is emotional and all about reconciliation. How can I reconcile all the great times I had growing up here with all the shitty things that the suburbs put me through? Before I moved out to the suburbs, no one bullied me, nor did people want to see me fail. But also, by the time I graduated high school, I felt as though the suburbs finally accepted and respected me for who I was. For as much as I hated junior high school, I loved high school just as much. It’s a war built on rage, but also upon questioning how much of that rage is justified.
Now, as a 23-year-old who still sees acquaintances from high school every once in a while, the new line in the sand isn’t drawn by trends and haircuts, but instead the camps are drawn by those who love the suburbs, and those dying to break free. On one side you have those who think Long Island is the greatest place on the planet, and never want to leave. On the other side though, are the people who never want to return. In that regard this division is reminiscent of Saturday Night Fever and how for some of Tony Monero’s friends, all they every wanted to know was Brooklyn, while others saw Manhattan as an escape from the dead-end monotony of Bay Ridge. Even now, five years after high school both sides are at odds. Those who want to leave the suburbs are seen as losers who want to run away from their lives, while those who want to stay are seen as deadbeats.
What clinches The Suburbs is the final track, “The Suburbs (Cont.)”, which serves as an epilogue, but also as a pensive truism to anyone who ever had the luxury of wasted time. During the minute long outro, Win Butler reveals a universal truth that exists within every one of us. The truest words that Win Butler will ever say are as follows: “If I could have it back, all the time that we wasted, I would only waste it again”. We’d all love to have time back to do things differently, but the truth remains, we’d only squander it just as we did If you have a positive construction of The Suburbs, you’ll interpret this as wanting more time to relive some of the best moments of your life. For those with a negative construction, they’d see this as a chance to improve on the time that they had. All the petty squabbles and anxieties that crept up on us as we were growing up would still get to us however; it’d be impossible not to misuse that time because you wouldn’t know how to properly use it in the first place.
If there is an antagonist in The Suburbs, it’s not the suburbs themselves, it’s time. Arcade Fire demonstrates to us, using firsthand accounts, that time is the culprit for lost loves, faded friendships, and wasted hours. Time, and its passing, changes how people act, how they feel, and even our fates. The future doesn’t care for present plans, as the world has machinations of its own. The worst part about time is that it makes us wish we had more of it.
I do, most likely, impose my own jilted perspective of suburban life onto The Suburbs, but it’s an album that, for all its descriptiveness and vivid illustrations, allows us to inject our own personal experiences to match and juxtapose those of Win Butler’s. It’s an album that is very easy to emote to because it draws its strength on such personal, but also universal memories. We all remember losing a good friend for no reason, or watching a stupid trend take over the neighborhood just as easily as we can remember driving around town, wasting time with the girl of our dreams in the passenger seat as her hair whipped around kinetically in the wind. The Suburbs depicts life as it is, the good and the bad of growing up in the suburbs. Even if the bad was terrible, for me the good does make it worthwhile. Maybe one day my own personal suburban war will end in a truce.