“The Suburbs” is the heavy opener and titular track from Arcade Fire’s grammy winning latest album. It is, in my opinion, a near-perfect opening and a summary for the entirety of the album. I myself, and I believe anyone, can connect with the universal message here that is perhaps not unique, but nevertheless both heart-wrenching and beautiful.
In the suburbs I
I learned to drive
And you told me we’d never survive
Grab your mother’s keys we’re leavin’
You always seemed so sure
That one day we’d be fighting
A suburban war
your part of town against mine
I saw you standing on the opposite shore
But by the time the first bombs fell
We were already bored
We were already, already bored
There is a clear idea here of an apocalypse, be it a literal one or rather the emotional wrecking of one’s reality. The secure bubble of childhood lost, “moving past the feeling” into the crushing sterility and starkness of consciousness, “into the night.” Right off there’s a sense of nostalgia, a feeling that for me almost becomes bitter throughout the song. The idea of a naïve sense of boredom even as “the first bombs fell” lends itself to the prominent theme of childhood.
Kids wanna be so hard
But in my dreams we’re still screaming, running through the yard
There’s a heartbreaking realization there: the difference in today’s youth and that of the suburb-dwelling generation of the 1970s. The responsibilities given and the adult roles taken by today’s youth are in stark contrast to the quieter, simpler beauty of a childhood spent in what seems in retrospect a dreamlike innocence.
The poignant image of “all of the houses they built in the seventies finally fall,” i.e., the death of the quintessential suburb, is I believe one of the key lines of the song. There’s a repeated reference throughout of a reverence for the past, the time before the end of the peaceful life of the suburbs. That part of life passes like “it meant nothing at all.” I see it as less of a physical end and perhaps more of a coming-of-age story, a classic pining for the days before the stifling, mind-numbing complacency of adulthood. The playful, simple chords would help suggest this; there’s a clear childlike playfulness throughout, despite the underlying melancholy of the lyrics.
After these unpleasant truths we’re asked:
So can you understand
Why I want a daughter while I’m still young
I wanna hold her hand
And show her some beauty
Before this damage is done
This phrase almost brings me to tears. After the clear ending of an entire way of life, growing up on a natural, untouched beauty, the onslaught of adulthood and the horrors faced in this modern age by ourselves and by nature brings a desperate desire for a daughter before it’s too late. To show her the beauty of the world while it still stands, before the evils we’ve set upon it rend it to an incomprehensible form. I can’t wait to have kids, because even in my short lifespan I’ve watched my childhood playgrounds become dangerous, supervision-dependent havens in what were once green and unfettered imaginariums. Even as air quality warnings prevent us from setting foot outside with a clear head and a worry-free heart, it’s imperative that we show our children the beauty still left in this world…that we watch the cool air kick up the skirts and blow the hair of our futures as they run out to play.
Under the overpass
In the parking lot we’re still waiting
It’s already passed
So move your feet from hot pavement and into the grass
Cause it’s already passed
It’s already, already passed
Whatever thing passes, be it a storm representative of the dangers we’ll face or indeed a hint of the coming end of our kid kingdom, we’re beckoned to move off the steaming pavement and feel the pleasantness of the cool grass between our toes.
Sometimes I can’t believe it
I’m movin’ past the feeling
Sometimes I can’t believe it
I’m movin’ past the feeling again
I know I already can’t believe the years that have passed, though I still (God-willing) have many yet ahead. Here we see that the narrator is moving past that stage of his life, moving on for better or for worse. But there’s clearly a lingering memory of a simpler time, of a better time. What we make of our future is all on us, and perhaps the only saving grace of the loss of that physical and mental world is that we learned from it what lessons we could. Regardless of how much we separate ourselves from whatever golden age we experienced, in our dreams “we’re still screamin.”
- Arcade Fire’s ‘Petit Eglis’ Studio Becomes Hallowed Ground for Canadian Indie Scene (spinner.com)
- Arcade Fire Win 2011 Polaris Prize (huffingtonpost.com)
- Matt Haimovitz & Christopher O’Riley Cover Arcade Fire (stereogum.com)
- Stream Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs Deluxe Reissue (pitchfork.com)
- Arcade Fire win Canadian Mercury (bbc.co.uk)
- Arcade Fire: The Suburbs (Deluxe Edition) (Review) (popmatters.com)
- Arcade Fire Win Polaris Music Prize (stereogum.com)
- Arcade Fire Win 2011 Polaris Prize (spinner.com)
- Arcade Fire, Sexsmith, Austra vie for Polaris prize (ctv.ca)