On Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs

Written by Matt Longo
On Arcade Fire's The Suburbs

The Arcade Fire provides the most poignant, timely middle-class soundtrack since I-don’t-know-when. They’re so very important for a certain demographic, a generation that knows no struggle beyond the confines of expected success, a generation that spent four years at an astronomically expensive collegiate sleep-away camp and became exclusively adept at watching movies and fucking. Well, good news, because now this generation has to take a step forward and deal with a country that is hemorrhaging money, morale and oil. I’m not the only one who has woken up in a cold sweat, wondering what the hell it is I’m doing here, other than carefully arranging my photo albums on FB to present a neat little account of my neat little inconsequential life to any other solipsistic attention whore that Andy Warhol himself would have thrown up on in disgust.

And who’s watching it all go down?

Working in reverse from Dylan’s lyrical precedent of looking at the world, then at himself, Win Butler began his official recording career addressing his personal grief with Funeral. Once Bush had taken the throne for a second time, Neon Bible popped out absolutely apocalyptic, complete with black waves speeding toward the coast, rising tides brimming at windowsills, and the general feeling that America was sinking into a particularly claustrophobic level of hell. But, discounting the brief moment in time when it seemed as if even the most jaded misanthrope was transforming into a change-embracing optimist, the Bush-era malaise has turned into something a little darker and inscrutable. It’s becoming unclear as to who the real enemy of America is anymore.  

So, where does Win Butler direct his gaze now? Why, to the source of the problem, actually. Who is corking up change? Who’s eating away the passion this culture so desperately needs toward…well, anything? The answer sits lurking in the Suburbs, hunched over a computer, letting any old injustice pass by his door, noticing, but disregarding, each new horror the mailman flops onto his stoop. Smart enough to do something, but gutted, ball-less. So he tweets and he posts and he comments, and he doesn’t touch anything or anybody. And he moves past the feeling.

The title track, with its bombastic, Kinks-y piano flourishes, splashes in the album, a song that is all at once upbeat and tense. “When the first bombs fell,” Butler yelps, “we were already bored.” Yes, so, at the start, it doesn’t seem like this is going to be an album that really comes to terms with anything whatsoever, not that is has to. Funeral vaguely suggested regressing to child-like notions of romance to cope with the crushing, dream-eating realities of adult life, while Neon Bible was simply a meditation on fear and paranoia. No real answers, just scenes, memories, ideas. But to say that this is a downfall of the band would be like saying American History X should’ve come up with some solutions to that sticky issue of racial tension. The Arcade Fire has confidently presented us with big, thick snapshots of a collective feeling, and the older us middle class sons-of-bitches get, the more we realize that we are very, very unequipped for our problems. Unless watching movies and fucking can actually save the world.

Please disregard the current critical backlash that snickers at the Arcade Fire for being too theatrical. Really? Have you heard this band before? What the fuck did you think this record was going to sound like? Pink Moon? Would you knock Queen for using an eight-part harmony and a gong? And who says indie-rock can’t be theatrical? You wouldn’t call twee, Moldy Peaches bullshit theatrical? Yeah, the Arcade Fire’s unique brand of drama tries hard, but it does so with purpose. The Arcade Fire aim to make Albums, with a capital A, and in the age of the iTunes single, and the ensuing nine-song filler, why are we knocking them for trying when no one else does?

Let’s not knock anybody for trying, please, especially when they’re largely successful in their attempts. Attempting to do something big, loud and great isn’t pretentious. The product might be pretentious, something unfortunate, but the struggle to create and express never is. The Arcade Fire’s attempt to be loud and meaningful, for all its bombastic noise and sometimes irritating discussion of “purity,” is endearing. This album doesn’t move past the feeling, and it doesn’t mean nothing at all, even to the harshest critic.

What does this mean? Why is this mocked, praised, hated, adored pop group setting an example? They’re setting an example because the culture of this generation doesn’t have to mean nothing at all. It doesn’t have to haunt our children, like the Baby-Boomers and their consequential sell-out strapped a weight to the culture of the following generation. Let’s not burden our children by failing to try, or failing to follow through, as the Boomers did. Let’s not mean nothing at all. And it’s as easy, or hard, as writing an album, as making someone cry with your art, with your expression, as simple as attempting to react to the shit that falls down around us. Win Butler took a snapshot of his heart and, however clumsy that act was, he will continue to do it. And I sleep easier knowing he will. Take a look at your latest album on FB and tell me what it means to you or anybody else, other than being something for us all to look at when we’re trying to move past the feeling. And if that album is all you have to give, then go fuck yourself, and step out of the way. And don’t tell anybody to stop singing.

This entry was posted in Music, No Pic. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.