The suburbs of North America carry with them a certain promise. Safety, normalcy, and a happy family life are purportedly housed within their bounds. Arcade Fire’s newest album, The Suburbs, explores these ideals and promises, their falsities and nostalgia, begetting an audio essay on the products of those promises in suburbia. The album is the best they’ve created yet. Like the Canadian band’s previous releases, Funeral and Neon Bible, Suburbs is synergistic, drawing upon the same core themes throughout the album, and repeating lines and concepts from song to song. But in this new collection of music lies a wholeness not seen before. The songs go together like pieces of a puzzle, oozing cohesiveness with every line.
The indie rock band breathes life into a bittersweet nostalgia and angst that is often found in Generation Y. The Suburbs became their most popular album after its release in August of 2010. And in February of 2011 it won the Grammy for album of the year. The songs compiled in Suburbs vary in kind and tone. Arcade Fire never was a band to be accused of always sounding the same. Some of the darkest lyrics are given the brightest or softest melodies, establishing an understanding that however disillusioned the writer is with suburban childhood, there is still some part of him that pines for the days of his youth. This fine balance keeps the album from growing bitter and harsh. Instead it feels straight from the heart; a refined blend of jaded hopes, angst, and yearning.
The first song on the album, titled The Suburbs, articulates this yearning; an overwhelming sense of nostalgia for the places we’ve grown up, regardless of the pain they hold or the promises they’ve broken. “Kids wanna be so hard / but in my dreams we’re still screamin’ and runnin’ through the yard.” This is a persistent thread throughout the album. The song ends on the same line, though now with an ominous feel. “We’re still screamin’.” The last word echoes on eerily, bringing to mind a terror filled shriek instead of laughing children playing in front yards.
Also imbibed in the album is the disappointment in and mistrust of authority. “The businessmen are drinking my blood,” groans one lyric in Ready to Start, and the same theme is echoed in City With No Children. “Never trust a millionaire . . . I feel like I’ve been living in / a city with no children in it / a garden left for ruin by a millionaire inside of a private prison.” Later on in the same song however, the singer identifies himself with the millionaire. “I used to think I was not like them / but I’m beginning to have my doubts / my doubts about it.” Concluding the chorus with, “a garden left for ruin by and by as I hide inside of my private prison.”
There is a sadness evoked in this album. The children of Generation Y despised the hypocrisy found in authorities, and as adults they’ve become much like those they hated. This mistrust of authority stems from the realization that the adults who presided over their childhoods were frauds, inept and deceitful, just like the false promises held in suburbia. “All the kids have always know / that the emperor wears no clothes / but they bow down to him anyway / it’s better than being alone.” This cycle of empty promises is the fate of an ungrounded society. Modern Man is particularly evocative of this theme, as is Half Light I, a bittersweet musing on freedom and suppression in childhood. And perhaps this is the central theme of the album: suppression of ideas and purpose stemming not merely from the physical suburbia, but from the authoritarians who held onto suburban ideals and tried to force them upon the children in their care. This album chronicles a loss. The suburbs are a metaphor for a directionless culture. Boredom is a consistent theme, as is a lack of direction.
Perhaps the most telling line in the entire album completes this idea: “First they built the roads / then they built the town / and that’s why we’re still driving around and around.” This line crops up multiple times in the album, sang with a variety of tones. And in it lies the heart of the matter. The suburbs were built on a path strewn with ideals but lacking a substantial goal. Without that teleological focus, all hopes and virtues and promises become futile and meaningless. The Suburbs articulates this disillusionment with a mastery of symbol and song, identifying with the listener and leaving them with a choice. Where will you chose to build your life?