Musical Interlude: Arcade Fire, Part I (the Sprawl)
For a couple of years now, urbanists both old and new alike have been enamored with the band Arcade Fire and their album The Suburbs. For me, they’re admittedly a recent discovery, having seen them at Bonnaroo this past summer for the first time. An awful lot has been written about this band over the past five years, as they’ve risen from an unknown band to the kings of Indie-pop. Their music, their writing, their attitude – it’s all been analyzed, reviewed and categorized. I’m not a music critic, though I am a musician and a music appreciator. What I find most interesting, though, is to look at music and musicians through the lenses of architecture and urban planning. This is especially so when an album and a band such as this grabs the imagination of popular culture.
First – a few basics about Arcade Fire. The band is led by the husband-wife duo of Win Butler and Regine Chassagne, and they currently hail from Montreal. The Suburbs is the band’s third album, coming on the heels of the widely-acclaimed Funeral from 2004. The Suburbs has won extensive acclaim, but most notably won the 2011 Grammy for Album of the Years. On a personal level, I usually don’t care about who wins the Grammys, but I admit in this case they really got it right.
The band is quite large, featuring up to 8 musicians (including 2 violinists – a big hit for yours truly), and their live performance is nothing short of exhilarating. Regine especially seems to bounce around the stage, playing virtually every instrument available. In fact, they seem to fall into a current trend that I personally enjoy that has pop and rock bands exploring different combinations of instruments, and even some unorthodox pieces.
The Suburbs is written more like a book with chapters, rather than a collection of songs. The songs all tell a story that evolves throughout the album, and several songs even share specific lyrics. The album is clearly an indictment of suburban life, and a foretelling of a dystopian suburban future – oftentimes describing the calalmities to come. In fact, one of the tracks is “Suburban War.” Jim Kunstler would be proud.
Win Butler has explained in interviews that the album “is neither a love letter to, nor an indictment of, the suburbs – it’s a letter from the suburbs.” And yet, it’s very hard to listen to the songs, listen to Butler’s own personal story, and not conclude that it’s far more indictment than anything else.
Of course, given my own interests, I felt the need to find out – who are these guys? Do they have a background in architecture or planning that preceded their musical career? While many artists over the years have written songs about suburbia, cities and social isolation, very few have put together such a thorough and well-written effort.
The short answer appears to be, this is just an area of interest, not anything that was ever pursued academically or professionally. From an interview in the The Observer in 2010:
"I had a somewhat religious upbringing," he says. "Not strict, but it was there and I'm kind of thankful for that. If you grow up just watching MTV, that's its own form of religion and it's not even based on happiness or communal responsibility. I mean, try to construct a worldview out of that."
Butler's childhood, though, was defined to a degree by the family's move from Truckee in northern California – "a community of creative potheads" – to Houston, which he describes as "a pretty big culture shock". His father's new job meant the family lived in a suburb called the Woodlands, which seems to provide the fictional setting for the linked songs on the new album. "It was the sprawl, you know, but there was still a sense of community. I remember once, when floods hit Houston, the church community rallied and helped everybody move their stuff or relocate."
A few things come clear from just this snippet. First, Truckee (coincidentally the location of one of my first design charrettes in 2000) is a wonderful mountain town with a strong sense of place and community. Houston couldn’t be much more opposite. While the Woodlands was a noble attempt at the time to create a planned community, it still has nearly all the failings of most post-war suburbia – disconnection, isolation, forced automobile use and more. Community tends be formed in spite of the place, instead of because of it.
Win and Regine elaborate on the album in this interview in ClashMusic, from 2010:
Why did you want to make a record about the suburbs?
Win: In my experience, it’s not a conscious decision, you just get inspired by what you get inspired by. I got a letter from an old friend and it had a picture of him and his daughter at the mall near where my brother and I grew up [in Houston, Texas]. It was unforeseeably moving and it brought back a lot of memories. This combination of someone that I hadn’t seen for a long time and his daughter who I’d never met and a totally generic but familiar place. It was this conflicted but very deep feeling.
Régine, you didn’t grow up in Houston. How did you identify with the subject matter of ‘The Suburbs’?
Régine: No, it’s not about just Houston, but both Win and I grew up in the suburbs. I grew up in Quebec, he grew up in Houston. What was interesting to me is that even though the places we grew up in were very different there were feelings and emotions attached to our surroundings that transcended the culture. We could both relate to the same sentiments even though we were in different countries. That’s why this album has fifteen songs. I think it was interesting to describe all those feelings. For example, the feeling when you’re very young that suburbs are kind of nice because there’s a little park to go to and it’s safe, but then you grow up and as a teenager it seems kind of dead and you feel like you want to get out of there. The image of the suburbs is not very glamorous and it’s not something people are very passionate about, but there are still dramatic stories that happen there. Everyone has their own little suburb story.
The key elements here that are popping up are the lack of community, the sense of the generic and lifeless that has been the New Urbanist critique of suburbia for nearly 30 years now. For the leaders of this band, they found inspiration from that, and created a marvelous piece of art without the professional baggage of those of us in the industry.
Now for the fun part – on to the music itself.
The songs themselves are a mixture of upbeat and solemn, and in no small part remind me of a lot of 80’s pop music. The album’s title track kicks it off with an upbeat and catchy tune, that includes lyrics such as this:
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
And all of the walls that they built in the seventies finally fall
And all of the houses they built in the seventies finally fall
Meant nothin' at all
Meant nothin' at all
It meant nothing
The song Half Light II (No Celebration) has this little ode to suburban life:
Oh, this city's changed so much
Since I was a little child.
Pray to god I won't live to see
The death of everything that's wild.
Suburban War, another song that grabs you quickly, has this excellent little critique of contemporary suburbs:
This town's so strange
They built it to change
And while we're sleeping
all the streets, they rearrange
Month of May, a fast-paced and driving song, continues the theme:
First the built the road, then they built the town
That's why I'm still driving around
And around and around and around and around and around and around and around and around
Directly following Month of May on the album is Wasted Hours. Wasted Hours is a haunting tune, but also an example of how the songs build on themselves and even share lyrics:
First they built the road, then they built the town
That's why we're still driving round and round
And all we see
Are kids in buses longing to be free
Some cities make you lose your head
Endless suburbs stretched out thin and dead
And what was that line you said
Wishing you were anywhere but here
You watch the life you're living disappear
And now I see
We’re still kids in buses longing to be free
The two “Sprawl” songs that take the album to its ending (along with the epilogue version of The Suburbs) are especially obvious in their critique of suburbia. Sprawl I (Flatland):
Took a drive into the sprawl
To find the house where we used to stay in
Couldn't read the number in the dark
You said let's save it for another day
Took a drive into the sprawl
To find the places we used to play
It was the loneliest day of my life
You're talking at me but I'm still far away
Let's take a drive
Through the sprawl
Through these towns they built to change
Then you said, the emotions are dead
It's no wonder that you feel so strange
Cops showing their lights
On the reflectors of our bikes
Said, do you kids know what time it is?
Well sir, it's the first time I've felt like something is mine
Like I have 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 is worth
Been searching every corner
Of the earth
Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains) in my opinion is the best and catchiest song on the album. The chorus (which should appeal to any of us in the suburbia-critique industry) goes like this:
Living in the sprawl
Dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains
And there's no end in sight
I need the darkness, someone please cut the lights
The verse before the first chorus has this two-line lead-in:
Sometimes I wonder if the World's so small
That we can never get away from the sprawl
Sometimes I wonder why I or one of my new urbanist buddies didn’t write this first, at least as a poem.
There’s much more to talk about with this band and album. Part II will explore another song on the album “We Used to Wait.” Stay tuned…