Just as songs can evoke specific memories, certain albums will always recall certain chapters in my life. Radiohead’s OK Computer is finishing school, working in childcare for $7 an hour and finally getting my license, and nights feeling paranoid about the future. The Shins’ Wincing the Night Away is moving to Sydney, feeling lost and lovesick and hopeful and homeless. Florence & The Machine’s Lungs is pounding my bike around Brisbane and Sydney summer streets post-break-up, everything veering between achingly beautiful and just aching. And now Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs will forever be the weeks of delicious release between finishing work, saying goodbye to Sydney, couch-surfing in Brisbane and returning home to the George. Aside from the fact it’s a damn good record that bears constant replays, at a time of returning to the haunts of my younger days – from uni to childhood- I couldn’t have had a better soundtrack.
Arcade Fire have always made albums that are thematic, though Funeral and Neon Bible tackled quite different ideas. But I feel like they’ve never done anything as strongly tied together as The Suburbs. I’m not sure you’d call it a concept album per se. These are songs of innocence and experience. The suburbs mean different things at different times of your life – there’s sepia-tinted nostalgia for the streets where you played as a child, but then those same streets grew suffocating in adolescence’s grip. Things come full circle in adulthood, when you might even consider returning to the suburbs to settle with children of your own. These are songs about returning home – and seeing how much has changed, and how much has stayed just the same.
The opening line sets the scene: In the suburbs / I learned to drive. Images like this recur, and it’s rather genius to lean lyrics and songs on experiences that are so universal and evocative: learning to drive, childhood haunts, schoolyard loves, feeling trapped , running away, returning home. Lyrical callbacks add to the album’s cohesiveness – whole couplets are repeated in different songs. The closing track is an eerie acapella version of the first, title track.
The tracking is cheeky too – strings swell while Win declares himself a “Modern Man”, but in the next track “Rococo” he’s scathing of “the modern kids”: let’s go downtown and talk to the modern kids / they will eat right out of your hand / using big words that they don’t understand.
I love the two-song set piece of “The Sprawl”. Part one, “Flatland”, is a minor key lament of the “get off my lawn” variety – returning home to see your old place and finding it gone. It moons on moody, cinematic strings, a baroque ballad that would make a neat little film. I love the reminiscence of that first taste of freedom on a bike:
On the reflectors of our bikes
Said do you kids know what time it is?
Well sir, it’s the first time I felt like something is mine
Like I had something to give
The last defender of the sprawl
Said “Well, where do you kids live?”
Well, sir, if you only knew what the answer’s worth
Been searching every corner of the earth…
Then things change up as Regine takes vocals joyously for part two, “Mountains Beyond Mountains” – they heard me singing and they told me to stop / quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock. There’s a synth arpeggio that I feel owes something to The Knife’s “Heartbeats” and I could be imagining it, but the breakdown reminds me of “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy”!
Throughout the album there are traces of Neil Young, Tom Petty, even the Byrds in the chiming riff of what i think is my favourite track, “Suburban War”. But there are also lots of retro electronic touches, bearing out a quote from the band I saw where they said they wanted the record to be some kind of mix of Neil Young and Depeche Mode.
The suburbs have long been a muse for all kinds of artists – from Jeffrey Smart’s flat, uninhabited paintings, to the prescription sedation of The Virgin Suicides; from the suffocating communities of Cheever and Updike, to the family doldrums of Daves Eggers and Sedaris. For mine, this album helps explain why the suburbs are such fertile ground for creativity – their streets are paved with childhood memories, nothing is done far from the watchful eyes of parents and teachers. The same nurturing that makes you feel safe as a child, represents limitation as you get older. A friend noted recently that it seems as though books must concern children and young people to be considered great literature. Obviously there are exceptions, but it’s a solid theory. Is it the limitless worldview of children that’s so seductive? That moment of coming-of-age, just before anything-is-possible becomes loss-of-innocence?
Apologies for such a long post (and I already wrote earlier about the video for “We Used To Wait”). But The Suburbs really got me thinking about youth, aging, nostalgia, creativity and escape. I reckon it could stir a lot for you as well, if you haven’t already fallen for it.