Published on August 7th, 2020 | by Noah Dimitrie0
Moving Past The Feeling: 10 Years of ‘The Suburbs’
A few days ago, Arcade Fire’s seminal album celebrated its 10 year anniversary. Noah looks back on the album’s unique philosophical elasticity and its timelessness.
“Can you understand?
I want a daughter when I’m still young.
I want to hold her hand
And show her some beauty
Before all this damage is done.”
I discovered Arcade Fire the same way a lot of people did—through their Grammy win. I remember watching this random band that seemingly nobody had heard of get up on stage and look delightfully bewildered by what had just happened. I was only 14, but I could sense immediately that something was different, that someone had infiltrated the typical parade of awards-show pop acts and made off with the heist of the century. Kind of like the satisfaction you get from seeing Danny Ocean and the crew prevail. But imagine if Ocean’s Eleven were a bunch of plucky hipsters winning their fortune singing about “business men drinking [their] blood.”
My taste in music was never the same after I listened to The Suburbs. You could say it was a defining moment in my journey to being a card-carrying indie rock snob. It was a perfectly timed stopgap between my Nirvana/My Chemical Romance phase and my Vampire Weekend/Bon Iver phase. The record sort of made me stop and reflect on what rock music was supposed to sound like, the way a rock song was supposed to be structured. Songs like “Ready to Start,” “The Sprawl II,” and “Deep Blue” struck me with this inspiration that hooks don’t need to telegraph themselves and that emotion doesn’t necessarily need to be strung out on your sleeve with a grunt and a sneer. Rock music sort of became sweeter overnight. And listening to The Suburbs felt like a band was finally speaking to me instead of speaking to the guy I thought I should be.
I grew up in the kind of suburbs Butler and co. seem to be invoking. Not the gated-community McMansion-type suburbs, but the lower-middle class kind—the rows of duplexes and potholed cul-de-sacs populated by single mothers and workaholics who would set their kids loose to terrorize the town on their 6-speed bikes. I remember seeing the music video for “The Suburbs” and seeing myself and my friends in it–those endless bike rides to the library where we felt free to just loiter around in the air conditioning. So its no wonder why I came to possess the record, and eventually the entire band, like my own personal tapestry of angst and wanderlust.
Who exactly is The Suburbs for? The 2010 Album of the Year winner sent shockwaves down the music industry’s collective spines when its name was called on that fateful night. The record clearly struck a chord with a multitude of demographics; how else could an indie rock record such as itself break through the glass ceiling of the mainstream pop world? Was it the simple, catchy hooks that resonated, simultaneously jagged and smooth in that signature AF way? Was it the album’s overall artistic reach mixed with its no-skippable-tracks consistency?
I think all those elements played a factor into its unprecedented rise. But I think the secret to the album’s success lies most heavily in its heart, the melancholic brand of nostalgia it so clearly signifies. The suburbs–as a socio-cultural concept, as a symbol of a quintessentially Western uniformity—is the perfect setting to drum up a wistful ennui. But make no mistake, Arcade Fire do not indulge nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake. Rather, singer/songwriter Win Butler psycho-analyzes his past, creating an impressionistic but relatable glimpse into a strange ecosystem of pseudo-security.
The opening, titular track, inarguably one of their most popular songs, sets the scene expediently. “In the suburbs, I…,” Butler yelps. “…I learned to drive. And they told me we’d never survive. Grab your mother’s keys; we’re leavin’.” The band has their finger on the pulse of what we all seem to hold so dear: youth, independence, naivety. As the song unravels, the story becomes one of a boy becoming a man, a bright-eyed suburbanite beginning to see the world for what it truly is, beginning to lose that spark of optimism or at least seeing it mutate. That’s where the lyrics quoted at the beginning of this review come in. Win hasn’t given up; rather, he wants to re-create that simplicity he once had, holding his daughter’s hand to “show her some beauty before all this damage is done.”
It feels a little surreal to me that 10 years have gone by since the record came into my life. I’m nearing 24 years old and starting to peel back the layers of strange, ugliness that characterized that duplex I grew up in, the invisible walls of the suburbs which I grew up behind. When I first heard the album, I related to that strange magic behind those walls, the way they played host to your first crush, your first taste of independence, your first beer, your first heartbreak. If anything, I was living vicariously through the music, absorbing Win’s experiences into my own for lack of a real high school clique. But now I listen to it and I feel sad. Bitter almost. The jangling guitars and resonant vocals scream out an ironic fable of growing up. Of moving on from the bike rides and the endless summers. Of “moving past the feeling.”
The record grows up with you. Its songs have a life of their own, ageing with a grandiose verisimilitude. And what speaks to the power of this record, the power of its efficacy in creating a living, breathing specimen of the human condition, is the way it has, over the years, lost its original authorial voice. It’s not an album about Win Butler, or Arcade Fire, or the suburbs anymore. It’s an album about me and you and everyone we know.