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Wondering About the Suburbs

Arcade Fire has made it, but what did they really make?

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by Alex V. Cook, Music Editor for outsideleft.com
originally published: August, 2010
It's like the naughtiness of the key party reduced to keyless entry.

Arcade Fire
The Suburbs
(Merge)

The Suburbs is all one big, long song, right? Or variations on orchestrations over a chug? I'm not saying it like it's a bad thing, but how do bands that do that sort of monochromatic kind of thing keep their songs straight? I always wonder that about bands tied too acutely to so tight a style. Like, I found myself at a She Wants Revenge show and as one poor Joy Division variant ploughed into another, I really wondered about their smirking bassist, who looked whip-smart in his old man's new waver suit. Does he just play the same bass line all night or maybe change it up by mood, regardless of the song? Probably not, but would anyone notice if he did?

I really liked Neon Bible and still do, more than Funeral even, mostly because of the deadened pace of the title track. I still catch myself thinking about how all that clappy, youthful excitement thuds to a halt and how it's like when the heart monitor stops beeping and the nurses come running. When they arrive, the patient coughs nerve-rackingly back to life.

I didn't quite grow up in the suburbs (we lived "in town") but my friends did and I get it; the life ratcheting on like sprinklers on those green lawns surrounding split-levels along those curvy streets. It is "where you kids live" as Win Butler muses toward the end of "Sprawl I (Flatland)." Our suburbs, more accurately subdivisions, were loosely carved out of sugar cane fields, mowed out really, and the ground would swell up marshy in a good rain and once in a while a bit of dormant cane would pop up in a treeless yard ambitiously named for the seasons or flowers or trees. We listened to a lot of U2 and Peter Gabriel and Bauhaus on those curved streets and occasionally spray-painted our allegiance in band logos thereupon. I have to think, by the sound of this album, that the diffuse,  forlorn, synthetic throb of the late 80's remains a suburban anthem. It never felt Muriel's Wedding, ABBA-perfect as "Sprawl II (Mountains Behind Mountains)" sorta does, but then we didn't have mountains on the horizon on which to dream.

In suburbs now, where no valuable lessons about how to live your life have been learned, I see rows of identical houses lined up on the perimeter of fake lakes, the network of streets reduced to a loop. No blinds lifted, the same truck parked in the same left-open garage stuffed with the same stuff. I sometimes wonder if you flip a coin at the front gate to see if you get a swimming pool or a trampoline when you move in. I wonder if, like that bass player, you came home and pulled your truck into the wrong garage and sat down with the wrong wife for dinner and ignored the wrong kids as you watched the wrong flatscreen TV, would anyone notice? It's like the naughtiness of the key party reduced to keyless entry.

Is The Suburbs the suburbs? Not really. A reflection thereof. A logo spraypainted on the street of that which it reflects. A black mirror (another great song off Neon Bible). A good record even. A band trying to become The Band, in that sense of bearing that title and emulating the "Cripple Creek" one. I'm sure they got Madison Square Garden all swaying as one, each post-suburbanite thinking lighter aloft that some of us made it to the big time, but just like when this record plays out, the crowd plays out, they shuffle off to the next thing, having witnessed a spectacle and process that points them back to right where they started, a consciously engineered Nowhere/Everywhere on which the spraypaint is fading.

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Alex V. Cook
Music Editor

Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com

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