Arcade Fire and the Suburban Soul

Now the music divides
Us into tribes

(Arcade Fire, “Suburban Wars”)

When Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs won the coveted Album of the Year Grammy on Sunday night, a round of protests erupted on Twitter—from “ummm, never heard of them ever” to “why did they steal Eminem’s award???” (At least Justin Bieber’s aggrieved fans were otherwise occupied, busily pasting creative edits all over Best New Artist winner Esperanza Spalding’s Wikipedia entry.)

They may not (yet) be a household name, but where the technological revolutions of the 1990s and early 2000s had their aural counterpart in Radiohead (especially OK Computer), today belongs to Arcade Fire, the Montreal-based band whose symphonic rock addresses big questions in narrative song form.

Like all award shows, the Grammys serve as an advertisement for an industry—and the music industry certainly needs it, given the collapse of the market for overpriced CDs. Perhaps this was just the year to give some recognition to indie rock outfits who sell their music through their own initiative and through the street cred of small music publishers like Arcade Fire’s label, Merge Records. But beyond the usual high school politics of these shows, the upset award for this indie band provides an opportunity for assessing some religious explorations of the contemporary soul.

The Dark Night of the Suburbs

Has there been a major pop group more concerned with exploring personal anxieties, aspirations, and narratives through music defined so fundamentally by religious themes? The turmoil and paranoia of the last decade—wars, attacks, economic crashes, myriad color-coded fears—run through Arcade Fire’s three full-length records: Funeral, Neon Bible, and The Suburbs. The newest effort induces a tour of previous decades, when suburbia seemed (but only seemed) to offer placidity and refuge from the wilderness downtown.

In reality, of course, that placidity hid a multitude of dreams and terrors, both public and private, uncontainable within cul-de-sacs. This theme, running throughout The Suburbs, was foreshadowed on the track “Rebellion (Lies)” from 2004’s Funeral, where the desire to hide your light “underneath the covers” meets the exhortation “Now here’s the sun/It’s alright,” and the response chant: “Lies. Lies.” These kinds of inner dialogues continue on the latest album: These days my life, I feel it has no purpose, Régine Chassagne sings in “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” but late at night the feelings swim to the surface.

From their debut, Funeral, and then most obviously and grandiosely in their last production, Neon Bible, religious desire, frustration, and anger define the lyrics. For some of the band’s critics, the group lays it on a bit thick. On Neon Bible, a crashing church organ accompanies a song about crippling inhibition and self-consciousness:

My body is a cage
that keeps me from dancing with the one I love
but my mind holds the key

set my body free, set my spirit free…

And a symphonic explosion of sound highlights the climax to “Intervention”:

Been working for the church while your life falls apart
been singing hallelujah with the fear in your heart

The Wilderness Downtown

When Neon Bible was released in 2007, lead vocalist and songwriter Win Butler, who has spoken about his Mormon upbringing and religious influences, said that the record attempted to address religion “in a way that only someone who actually cares about it can. It’s really harsh at times, but from the perspective of someone who thinks it has value.” 

Neon Bible is more ambitious, riskier, and ultimately more interesting musically than The Suburbs, the Grammy winner that shocked a nation of tweeters. Or maybe I’m just a sucker for albums that employ massive church organs to punctuate song endings.

Compared to the heavier, denser background music of Neon Bible, The Suburbs moves along jauntily, shuffling genres and styles, even featuring a shimmering and playful “Heart of Glass” disco sound to its lyrically serious (I need the darkness, someone please cut the lights) penultimate song “Sprawl II.” The sheer desire for mobility runs throughout. Riding bikes, driving cars, or just walking and running appear in virtually every tune. The record threads together a narrative, like a series of short stories with the same characters and often the same lines or negations of those lines, and concludes with reflections from later in life, the suburban drama now reduced to the small screen:

We watched the end of the century
Compressed on a tiny screen
A dead star collapsing and we could see
That something was ending
Are you through pretending
We saw its signs in the suburbs

Like their first two albums, The Suburbs is full of anxious contemplation of uncovering meaning in environments constructed to be as normal as possible, but having the effect of being as strange, changing, and alienating as possible. “The kids” who appear throughout are learning to ride bikes, waiting on letters, running through the streets, dashing off to the park with young lovers to kiss at night only to be harassed by cops with too much time on their hands, cutting their hair to mimic their friends, and absorbing themselves in dreams of another life elsewhere. They’re kids in buses longing to be free. When older, they come back, think of all those wasted hours, and wonder if there can be an escape from the sprawl in the wilderness downtown, or anyplace else. All my old friends/they don’t know me now, seems the only certain conclusion.

And the band invites you to experience the feelings of the songs in a multimedia environment. At this site, you can input the address where you grew up and to the tune “We Used to Wait,” street-side scenes of your address (from Google Earth) pop up alongside a swirl of the character’s memories, concluding with Dali-esque imagery of trees suddenly sprouting in your chosen streets.

From Natural Refuge to Paved Prison

The American suburb has a history longer than most recognize, representing both the garden and the machine; both heaven and hell. The “streetcar suburbs” of the nineteenth century beckoned exhausted city people with a paradisiacal escape from urban turmoil and squalor. That some of these first ’burbs are now the “inner-ring” suburbs of contemporary urban decay is one of many ironies of the history of suburban development and devolution.

The imagery of the suburbs, from those streetcar suburbs of an earlier century to these edge cities (defined by crossing interstate highway lines), has moved from heaven to hell, from natural-but-ordered escape to paved prison. Nineteenth-century religious reformers thought of the suburbs as a bucolic respite from urban control, a chance to commune with nature even at home—while twentieth-century planners and developers perceived the chance to assert control, and make even more accessible and affordable that “escape.” For them, heaven lay in control. The bulldozer in the countryside transformed the American landscape and economy in the twentieth century, and its religious expressions too. The results, for good and ill, are explored on The Suburbs.

The suburbs on The Suburbs are not heaven or hell, but seem as strange and otherworldly as they used to seem normal; the record is full of ambivalence about them. Affectionate nostalgia mixes with hazy memories at the joys and frustrations of always “waiting.” More ominously, the lyrics report on the squelching of difference and the Tocquevillean tyranny of the majority:

They heard me singing and they told me to stop
Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock

Then there are the rather predictable blasts at the usual hypocrisies of religion and capitalism, presumably aimed at prosperity preachers. You never trust a millionaire quoting the sermon on the mount. Doing so leaves you with the gated community, a garden left for ruin by a millionaire inside of a private prison, compelling you to stay hidden inside your own private prison.

And while parks beckon as places of escape, even there order exerts its authority—cops show up, shine their lights on the reflectors of our bikes, and call down curfew. When they ask the kids where they live, the answer is telling:

Well sir, if you only knew
What the answer is worth
Been searching every corner
Of the earth

Arcade Fire’s records continue that search, never quite making it home. The suburb has its comforts, they admit, but ultimately it is eerie and unsettled; the antithesis of the dreams of its planners.