2010 in many ways felt like a beginning and an end. It was a moment in time when hip-hop got quirkier, pop went EDM–or rather EDM went pop, and indie-rock bands soaked themselves so much reverb and dreamy vocals that the subject matter became an afterthought.
The rock band as we knew it experienced a resurgence in the early 2000’s with the Strokes and Arctic Monkeys leading the way; but that too inevitably lost steam, as the end of the decade brought a critically-adored set of art rock bands that leaned further into their experimental roots (Animal Collective, Dirty Projectors, Grizzly Bear).
Arena rock was an old man’s game. U2, McCartney, Springsteen, and The Who still managed to dominate marquees and headline festivals. Meanwhile, the arena-friendly sound remained strictly verboten for indie bands that shirked the sort of fame and attention still being cradled by the over-the-hill classic rockers. And then there was Arcade Fire, who only two albums into their career were already pegged as this generation’s answer to the 70’s legends. They’d even shared stages with Bowie and Springsteen while touring Neon Bible; and proven themselves as a more-than-worthy sub-headliner at major festivals worldwide.
Just six days after The Suburbs release on August 8th, I would make the trek to Chicago to see the band headline the final night of Lollapalooza. While my friend David would stage hop to catch different acts (Chiddy Bang was a high priority), I’d stay camped-out on the main stage to be up front and center for Arcade Fire. I was about to enter my final year of high school, and waiting all day for the show constituted something of a religious experience for me. Somehow, chanting the chorus to the encore “Wake Up” with the herds exiting the festival gates–and back to their respective suburbs– didn’t feel corny; it felt like an arrival.
The Suburbs is a rock record. It’s an unabashed concept album; over an hour in length, with an intro/reprise and several suites. The songs are a frenzy of hi-fi rock songs that dash elements of punk, glam, and disco into Arcade Fire’s signature orchestral sound. From the vintage churn of “The Suburbs” all the way through to the dazzling stomp of “Sprawl II”, The Suburbs reflects the band at their most honed.
It’s approach is cinematic; everywhere down from its anthemic songs to its accompanying short film by Spike Jonze. The band would release two more albums throughout the decade to mixed reviews, but The Suburbs remains their ultimate statement–which says a lot coming from a band that attempted grand statements with each new record.
“In the suburbs, I learned to drive. And you told me we’d never survive. Grab your mother’s keys we’re leaving.” The album’s intro echoes Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road”: “Mary, climb in. It’s a town full of losers, I’m pulling out of here to win.” But unlike Springsteen’s magnum opus of suburban escapism , The Suburbs casts the suburbs as an active character; jostling and nagging at its protagonists, whereas Springsteen’s suburbs tell of a dreary, inert town promising nothing but the same.
The chugging guitar burner “Ready to Start” serves as an introduction to the characters of the businessman (modern man) and the modern kids (art school kids): “The Businessmen are drinking my blood. Like the kids in art school said they would.” The dichotomy of the two return in “Modern Man” and “Rococo”, where Win Butler trades jabs at both cloying suburban adversaries. Butler’s protagonist is something of a romantic, seeking “real” experience in a world that he feels increasingly distant from.
Regine Chassagne voices the other protagonist that we meet in The Suburbs. On “Empty Room” and “Half Light I”, she plays the role of the pensive dreamer. Together with Butler, their voices push the story forward through their poignant meditations on suburban life. “Half Light I” transitions from the exterior of the home. (“the houses hide so much…they hide the ocean in a shell”) to the interior of the self, (“our heads our just houses without enough windows”).
Like any extensive meditation on a subject, the songs on The Suburbs unravel the psychological effects of inhabiting a vast world of rampant commodification. “Pray to God I won’t live to see the death of everything that’s wild,” Butler sings on “Half Light II”, which closes the album’s first act. This sentiment of grasping for experiences that are “real” and “authentic” is something that’s as relevant now as it was in 2010, with people’s ever-deeper retreat into the silicon cities on their screens. For perspective, The Suburbs was released two months before Instagram even went live, and changed the way people broadcast their life narrative to their peers.
(Courtesy of Billboard)
Side two of the Suburbs picks up with the protagonists several years down the road, now living in unnamed cities. On “Suburban War”, Butler repeats the title track’s first lines, though this time he’s forgotten his suburb, and the suburb has likewise forgotten him. While on “Wasted Hours”, one of the albums most beautiful moments, he resolves that though they may be out of the suburbs and living a monotonous work life in the city, “we’re still kids in the buses longing to be free.” On first listen, a line like this may be taken as a sort of saccharine nostalgia for one’s twee reveries; but, in the context of the album, it shows one can physically remove oneself from the suburbs, but the sense of longing that they instill is something that follows you for life.
It’s always strange revisiting an album that you loved so much as a teenager and worrying that it may sound dated, or stale to your adult ears. For those, like myself, who were teenagers when The Suburbs was released, there’s more insight to be gleaned from side two.
On Love’s 1967 masterpiece Forever Changes, Arthur Lee’s songs portend an apocalyptic dread looming dark over a flower-powered Los Angeles. The songs are laden with existential anxieties and prophetic imagery of water turning to blood and today’s news becoming tomorrow’s movies. On the album’s final track, Lee finally sees some sort of light at the end of the tunnel, declaring “This is the time and life that I am living and I’ll face each day with a smile. For the time that I’ve been given’s such a little while.” Though less explicitly a concept album as The Suburbs is, Forever Changes touches on making sense of one’s place in a society that seems gleefully oblivious to its deterioration.
Win Butler lyrics on “Deep Blue” are reminiscent of Lee’s: “Here in my place and time, and here in my own skin, I can finally begin…Tomorrow means nothing.” “Deep Blue” turns into an existential battle cry to ‘step away from your cellphone and laptop’ and get swept up in some “wild.” The band’s orchestration builds to a swell and fades out as the protagonist presumably wanders off from his modern despair, if only for a minute.
If there’s one song that’s become a fan favorite, it’s “Sprawl II”, the album’s shimmering finale. In an album dense with claustrophobic imagery of Suburban isolation, “Sprawl II” turns that endless sprawl into ecstatic release. Regine re-enters the album in a glorious fashion, over a discofied instrumental singing with abandon of their being “no end in sight.” Once again the characters of The Suburbs are stuck in a loop with no end. And as “The Suburbs (Continued)” plays the record out, it’s clear that we’re back where we started, with only their stories to tell.
Life After The Suburbs
Arcade Fire’s music has always lent itself suitably to film and television, being used in everything from Six Feet Under to Skins to The Hunger Games. Spike Jonze notably used “Wake Up” in his trailer for Where The WIld Things Are, and “Supersymmetry” as part of the score of Her. In 2014, Richard Linklater chose to end his coming-of-age epic Boyhood with “Deep Blue” rolling into the credits.
Like a prequel to the first half of The Suburbs, Where the Wild Things Are is an ode to youthful escapism, while Boyhood is a hyper-realistic look at the indelible moments that shape an upbringing in the American suburbs. More of a reflection of the album’s second half, Her stands as a profound exploration of the blurring of lines between human relationships and artificial intelligence. So while may be obvious to point out the cinematic quality of a concept album like The Suburbs, it’s worth noting that its power derives from its space for interpretation, with each listener ascribing their own experience into each song.
As I watched the band rip through their set in Grant Park on that muggy August night, I felt the sense of communal belonging that massive rock shows have always promised. Sweaty and sober, I latched onto the shoulders of strangers and shouted each lyric as if my life depended on it. And it didn’t matter that The Suburbs was only six days old, because everyone sang along with the new songs as if they’d known them their entire lives too. A great album has the ability to etch itself into one’s mind, and soundtrack their experiences past and present. For all the Lollapalooza kids who waited in the sun all day to hear songs from The Suburbs, the movie in their mind may have been different, but the soundtrack was shared.
The Suburbs took home the Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 2011; the only rock album to win that honor all decade. And while most of the decade’s indie rock sound shied away from Arcade Fire’s grandiose anthems, The Suburbs endured as a reminder that rock bands can still make music that speaks to inner truths and wider issues.
It’s been written off as pretentious, long-winded, and privileged. And it shot the band to a level of fame that drove many early supporters to abandon ship. But The Suburbs’ accomplishments outweigh its flaws. The Suburbs is the best rock album of the decade. It’s a layered, confident record that proves that rock music can still be played to arenas without succumbing to anybody’s preconceived standards.