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10 Years On, Arcade Fire’s 'The Suburbs' Is Still Sublime

As it approaches its 10 year anniversary, Michael Athey looks back at one of the defining albums of the past decade

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Image Credit: Merge Records (US)/ Mercury Records (UK)

From the instant you hear the opening jangly piano melody of Arcade Fire’s Grammy winning album, you are instantly transported to the sun struck streets of The Suburbs.

But the suburbs that Arcade Fire transport you too are more than just a place, it is also a feeling - a universally relatable feeling of growing up and finding one’s place in the world, explored by revisiting the narrator’s childhood home and uncorking a bottle of nostalgia, disillusion and summer. Alongside the best refined version of Arcade Fire’s trademark cacophony of multi-instrumentalism, this makes The Suburbs still a timeless listen even approaching its 10th anniversary.

A human geographical term, ‘suburbanisation’ describes the trend of urban sprawl out of city centres to engulf the wider areas into one urban agglomeration, and the album focuses on the effects of this trend on people primarily through its narrator. It is a process that many of us will likely have been exposed to ourselves as it does occur in Britain, though admittedly not to the clear visible extremity of America, where The Suburbs is set. Just google ‘Los Angeles urban spawl’ and you will get a sense of the maze. Rigid straight American streets, boulevards and avenues, alongside copy-and-pasted urban housing, makes the album’s narrator - an inhabitant and product of the
suburbs - understandably lost at times. Lost physically, due to no differentiating landmarks to navigate by, causing the narrator to express their frustration that they are constantly “still driving around and around and around…”. However, they also feel lost with their sense of identity. Places reinforce people’s character, but with no uniqueness from one area of the suburb to the next any individuality is stifled. What character is being reinforced?

As the narrator wrestles with this conundrum, they cling to any flair or originality they find in their friends or themselves, as well as praying “to God I won’t live to see the death of everything that’s wild”. The yelp that follows that line seemingly one last fleeting act of untamed wildness against the continuously sprawling structured suburbia.

This search for identity is explored in tandem with the narrator growing up, hurtling from their teenage years to early adulthood and transitioning from carefree blind innocence to a position of direction and responsibility over their own life. Transition is a leitmotif that is expressed to be challenging for the narrator to contend with throughout the album. Whether, losing old friendships due to changing to the point where “all my old friends they don't know me now”, or the increasing prevalence of technology which makes them lament the human agency in simple acts such as letter writing.

The biggest transition the narrator undertakes though is beginning their career and entering the capitalist system. It’s hardly surprising that they have resentment for the system considering their scepticism regarding ‘Suburbia’, which is often depicted as the embodiment of the capitalist American dream with a white picket fence. Slogging through the 9 to 5, their disillusion only grows leading them to question are they still a good person and can they even be a good
person when you are a cog in the system? Or as they phrase it, “do you think your righteousness can pay the interest on your debt? I have my doubts about it”. Although dealing with tough questions, The Suburbs provides comfort to us listeners in the sense that we are not alone in these worries. For as university students we too are worried about dealing with our student debt and entering what can be a hostile job market while trying to carve out a career. Although providing comfort to our worries, the narrator receives none for themselves. Their reward for raising such insecurities: “quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock.”

Perhaps this is what causes the narrator to take refuge in reliving their childhood memories, because for just as much as the album critiques the sprawling suburbia, there is an underlying reverence for it. The Suburbs as an album exudes summer and childhood innocence. Summer memories ride on through songs just like the kids on their own bikes, playing, “screaming and running through the yard”. This dose of nostalgia is intense and makes you
harken back for your own childhood where you too didn’t have a care in the world. When “old friends” were just, friends; and wasting time and basking in the sun and naivety were the objectives for the day.

Upon listening, it lures for you too to place on your rose-tinted glasses and “move your feet from hot pavement into the grass”. Peering through these glasses though, you will see the same realisation as the narrator. That they are not a “modern man” - a phrase which they repeat till it is obsolete in the track of the same name and clearly offers them no respite. The truth they realise, and maybe even we do as listeners, is that even though we proclaim to be adults, “we’re still kids in the buses, longing to be free.”

Arcade Fire, self-summarised that their album was “neither a love letter nor an indictment of the suburbs… it’s a letter from the suburbs”, which they achieved sublimely. The Suburbs is an honest representation of where they grew up and growing up itself, which does mean displaying warts and all, but also paying homage to the summer heat filled memories of youth. A sentiment reflected in one of albums final lines. In a final melancholy reprise of ‘The Suburbs’ melody on strings, the narrator morosely whispers, even with all their hindsight, “if I could have it back, all the time that we wasted, I'd only waste it again, if I could have it back, you know I would love to waste it again.”

The truth is its still home, and home, is home. A truth that will remain true in 10 years, 25 years and even more.

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