“The term ‘suburb’ is of course vague. The word alone is enough to unleash myths.”
I think the very notion of the suburbs in the old-fashioned sense – that homogenised sprawl of corporate housing and malls – is like a metaphor for something much bigger.”
“It’s very easy to sneer at mass society or the American suburb, but there are many beauties there.”
Last week, it was announced that a new Arcade Fire album will be released on October 29. Great news, but I’m still not done listening to their last album, The Suburbs. The blessings of the digital age have brought unprecedented access to a large quantity of music released in rapid fire fashion, perhaps at the expense of “quality time” (if you will) with our music. Growing up, I remember poring over cassette tape and compact disc jackets to decipher the meaning of lyrics. Those habits have changed in the age of the instant download or various digital listening options. The Suburbs, however, merited an old-school response. I bought the CD and pulled out the jacket–a fittingly retro practice in light of the album’s themes (did I mention that it’s an album?).
An album title like The Suburbs may lead you to assume that it’s yet another indictment of suburban life. It is a far richer work than that, though critique is certainly on display. In fact, critics have noted and Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler has acknowledged that its depiction of suburban homogenization actually has more far-reaching implications, from the uniformity of internet culture to hipster conformity (‘I feel like I’ve been living in a city with no children in it‘). The pictures are vivid but not always pretty. Modern youth in the quasi-fictional setting of The Suburbs come of age in a world depicted with images of boredom (‘We were already, already bored’), tribalism (‘Your part of town against mine’), futility (‘in line for a number but you don’t understand’), and empty protest (‘They build it up just to burn it back down’). Lyrical snapshots of social breakdown, economic decline and corruption, creaky construction, and suffocating sprawl are scattered through a work of bittersweet reflection on growing up.
Therefore when you encounter the album’s poignant nostalgia and longings laid bare, it feels hard-won. The Suburbs is a densely textured work about the sanctity of a place and time that, though riddled with transience and imperfections, provide the context of what Walker Percy famously called “the Search“:
“What is the nature of the search? you ask. The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. To become aware of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.” (The Moviegoer)
Or as the song “Sprawl I (Flatland)” put it:
The last defender of the sprawl / said, ‘Well, where do you kids live? / Well sir, if you only knew what / the answer is worth. /I’ve been searching every corner of the earth.
I’ve thought a lot about Walker Percy when listening to The Suburbs. For Percy, the suburbs could be settings for malaise and despair, but they could also be pockets of beauty and triggers for a search. The subdivisions, shopping malls and sprawl of The Suburbs are commercial and residential development driven more by a desire for economic prosperity than by a fuller vision for human flourishing:
Living in the sprawl. / The dead shopping malls rise / like mountains beyond mountains / and there’s no end in sight. / I need the darkness. / Someone please cut the lights! — “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”
But the desire for human flourishing is evident throughout The Suburbs, despite being haunted by the rapid passage of time (Now our lives are changing fast. / Hope that something pure can last). It is important to remember as well that Win Butler does not express regret for those “wasted hours” of his suburban youth (If I could have it back, / you know I would love / to waste it again). More than a wish for the more carefree days of youth, I believe this is a statement of honoring the totality of his experience, including its everydayness, in a manner reminiscent of the Seamus Heaney poem “Markings”:
All these things entered you
As if they were both the door and what came through it.
They marked the spot, marked time and held it open.
This album has stayed with me, perhaps because of my own version of ‘the Search’ growing up in the suburbs of Columbia, SC. Already, new suburbs (mountains beyond mountains) have overtaken the neighborhoods of my youth. But I too “mark the spot” and honor the experience of that time and place. OK Arcade Fire, I’m ready for the next one…
Photo: Sean O’Flaherty, “A photo of a new housing development in San Jose, CA, USA.” (attribution: CC BY-SA 2.5)