Welcome to part three in my series about how Arcade Fire has somehow managed to paint a lovely watercolor of my emotional landscape at the time when each of their albums was released. This is the last one before I ‘review’ the new album, which I haven’t let myself listen to yet, because I wasn’t allowed to until I finished writing this. We work on a reward system around here – its efficacy is up for debate.
The Suburbs came out the August before I moved to college. After living in the same corner of the Philadelphia suburbs for my whole life, I simultaneously ached to get out and dreaded leaving. I had taken a year off after high school, and that year had thrown me for a loop. I spent the first six months of it looking for a job, and the last six months of it doing a job, and I carved a deep niche for myself there. When it was time to leave for college in Massachusetts, it felt like I was doing so much more than leaving home. I felt like I was destroying my idea of home, in such a way that I could never really come back to it. And the worst part was coming back after having left and knowing that my instincts were right.
There’s that amazing scene in Garden State, which is a movie that I think it’s become uncool to love, which is fine because I was never cool to begin with. Zach Braff’s character has that beautiful monologue in the pool about what it’s like to leave home:
You’ll see one day when you move out – it just sort of happens one day and it’s gone. You feel like you can never get it back. It’s like you feel homesick for a place that doesn’t even exist. Maybe it’s like this rite of passage, you know. You won’t ever have this feeling again until you create a new idea of home for yourself, you know, for your kids, for the family you start, it’s like a cycle or something. I don’t know, but I miss the idea of it, you know.
The Suburbs does a lot of things, but the one that means the most to me is that it speaks to this feeling in such a profound and specific way. I listened to it again thinking I would only have to write about a handful of songs, but the truth is that this point is interwoven through nearly every song. The whole album feels like taking a physical, temporal, and emotional tour through the neighborhood where you grew up and realizing that it’s not your home, even though you’re still haunted by the parts of your life that took place there. If Funeral was mourning for a loss of childhood or innocence, The Suburbs is mourning for the loss of home.
The first two songs take place in a sonic middle ground, but underneath both are steady, driving rhythms that echoed what it felt like to leave for class each morning. I was completely unmoored and unsure of what I was doing, but I kept on doing it because of this steady undercurrent of determination. “Ready to Start” was especially prescient. I had just spent a year out of school, working a full-time job and pretending to be a real adult, and suddenly I was back in school, stuck there for another four years, and kind of annoyed about it. I was homesick, but I knew that going home wouldn’t make things any better. “Ready to Start” was about owning the idea that things were weird and crappy and moving through it. Nothing felt more true to me than the line Now you’re knocking at my door / saying please come out with us tonight / But I would rather be alone / Than pretend I feel alright because that was literally happening to me my first semester. My friends wanted me to go out, but I refused, because I didn’t want to have to pretend like I was having fun. Win Butler, he just gets me.
Part of why this album got to me so much is that it was the first one I had ever heard that really described what it was like to grow up in a suburb. And it’s completely authentic – Win and Will Butler grew up in what Wikipedia calls “a master-planned community” outside of Houston. (If anyone understands sprawl, it’s people who grew up outside of Houston.) When he sings about learning to drive and hanging out in parking lots, it rings true. There are plenty of rock albums about frustration from living in the middle of nowhere, but fewer that accurately capture the feeling of coming from the middle of middleness. For me, this is one of the best.
The keystone of the album, in my opinion, is “Suburban War.” Starting with just one melancholic guitar, Win leads us on a drive through the town. My old friends, we were so different then, he sings, and tells us you grew your hair, so I grew mine, which seems like a direct call back to Funeral. The song conveys how strange it is to be physically in the place where you grew up, and yet to feel so distant from it. Returning to the neighborhood of your childhood is like traveling through time, but in a way that only makes you feel farther away from the past. All of the neighborhoods we were lead through in Funeral are revisited, and found to be hollow ruins of what they were before. And when the song breaks open to an anthemic drumbeat, it turns into an outright lamentation for the loss of home – all my old friends, they don’t know me now. This is what I was afraid of when I left for college.
And then “Month of May” – these two songs together is everything that I felt in my freshman year. Lamentation, but also a grim determination to keep moving, to not only survive but to flourish. I know it’s heavy, I know it ain’t light, but how you gonna lift it with your arms folded tight? Listening to this song during that first grey November was epiphanic. I had dealt with Seasonal Affective Disorder for most of my life, but winter in Massachusetts presented a new challenge. My SAD was always bookended between November, when I started going dormant, and May, when I broke out of hibernation. The idea of starting again in the month of May, especially backed up with the punk-esque distorted guitars and strange howling sounds, was at once familiar and revelatory.
“We Used to Wait” is about regret and also waiting for the mail, which are universal themes. And it seems strange / how we used to wait for letters to arrive / But what’s stranger still / Is how something so small can keep you alive. Part of this is about losing touch with friends. Part of it is about the sadness that comes from losing your childlike enthusiasm for simple things, and your desire to be honest. The final part of the song is a resolution – I’m gonna write / a letter to my true love, / I’m gonna sign my name. And at the end, you hear what (to me) sounds like the sound of tires driving over seams in the pavement of a highway.
Which carries you into “Sprawl I (Flatland),” a song that seems unassuming until you listen to the lyrics. Once again, we’re touring the neighborhood, this time in a less mournful and disjointed way. The title is important, too, because when Win sings about sprawl his singing about the physical sprawl of city suburbs but also the mental and emotional sprawl of life. When I was a child my world was contained to a few blocks, but as I got older and moved out it became larger and larger, more scattered, and less secure. And to a child who grew up in the suburbs, those few blocks felt so important and so personal, but there comes a time when you realize that there are countless blocks just like yours. Suddenly your neighborhood doesn’t seem so intimate, and you wonder if your whole childhood was one of many clones. The last verse is a summation of everything so far: The last defender of the sprawl / Said, well where do you kids live? / Well sir, if you only knew / What the answer is worth / Been searching every corner / Of the earth…
And then you really just gotta dance it out with Sprawl II.
The fact that the final track is called “The Suburbs (continued)” seems like not only a reprisal of the opening and title track but also a comment on the fact that this feeling stays with you and is a part of you. It’s an ellipsis on the theme of the album, with Win and Regine echoing the line from the opening song: sometimes I can’t believe it / I’m moving past the feeling again. As their voices fade out, you’re left with all of the mournfulness and homesickness, but still looking towards the future. You can drive forever in any direction, but it’ll still feel like you’re driving around aimlessly until you find somewhere or someone or something to call home.