Much has changed in the ten years since The Suburbs was released; and in a lot of ways, nothing has.
Win Butler was probably the kind of kid that I would have hated if we’d gone to grade school together. Not because I imagine he’d be mean to me (he definitely wouldn’t) or would show me up in basketball (he definitely would), but because I would be infinitely jealous of his ability to turn insightful observations into action. While everyone else in class copied the teacher’s sample arts and craft project step-by-step, Butler was probably the kid who took a basic two-dimensional strings-and-popsicle-sticks concept and extrapolated into a 3-D diorama using magnets to make a paperclip star hover in mid-air. I fucking hate kids like that.
Still, I absolutely adore what they’re able to conjure and create, and there is no better example of Butler’s lyrical and musical creativity than The Suburbs. Though no one would have predicted in 2010 just how timely Arcade Fire’s third and finest album would sound in 2020, the timelessness of swelling strings, inspired indie-rock, electro-pop, and Springsteenian anthems were all but a foregone conclusion. In 2009, Arcade Fire were model students, studying their first two full-lengths and breaking apart what made them work (the ragged glories of 2004’s Funeral) and what made them weary (the pretentiousness permeating 2007’s Neon Bible). It was clear the collective had the chops to carry a concept all the way through an album; what they needed was a full-length-ready idea worthy of fleshing out. Like any good writer would, Butler (re)turned to what he knew best, or more precisely, what resonated most deeply with him: the banality of life in the suburbs of Houston where he and brother/bandmate Will grew up.
Where Funeral was a network of super-connected neighbourhoods, The Suburbs represented stretches of streets that seem to go on indefinitely, like a paved over purgatory. In interviews at the time, Arcade Fire went to great pains to ensure that The Suburbs was perceived as neither a paean to nor a prosecution against the suburbs; it’s meant to be an unprejudiced study of life within them. On paper, that sounds more like a recipe for gelatin salad than a rock ‘n’ roll concept album, but this is Arcade Fire, after all. The band is incapable of not adding angst, grit, and passion to the mix, and their double album opus to the mundane has all of that in spades.
Prior to the album’s release on August 2, 2010, multi-instrumentalist Richard Reed Parry mentioned to Michael Barclay he feared that The Suburbs was too long. Given the limitations of our collective attention spans at the time, Parry had a right to be concerned: a sixteen-song, four-sided record didn’t seem like a good fit at the dawn of digital downloading. A decade later, thanks to playlist curating and stream counting, long-ass albums aren’t so much an anomaly as the norm (for comparison, Taylor Swift’s recently released folklore is also sixteen songs and sixty-four minutes long). And with all the time in the world on our hands (thanks, COVID!), sitting through the whole of The Suburbs from start to finish is not only possible but preferable. It’s truly the only way to appreciate its perfection. Even in its least engaging moments (I’m looking at you, “Deep Blue”) every song on The Suburbs sounds essential to its overall arc. It’s a masterfully sequenced record, pitting anxious anthems (“Ready to Start”, “Empty Room”, “Half Light II (No Celebration)”, “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”) against heartbreaking, tender studies of the day-to-day human condition (“Wasted Hours”, “Half Light I”, “Modern Man”), interspersed with angsty snark and criticism of hipster culture (“Rococo”, “Month of May”).
To those same hipsters whose reference point for a concept album was more Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois and Michigan than Bruce Springsteen’s The River or The Who’s Tommy, The Suburbs sounded monumental and generation-defining. The passing of time and a generational shift in society and cultural priorities has tempered how massive and untouchable The Suburbs sounds. Still, revisiting the record for its tenth anniversary this summer in the middle of a pandemic makes for freaky listening: shuttered malls; neighbourhoods devoid of kids playing with each other; people holed up in their homes for months at a time; air is the enemy, and boredom and ennui the accepted reality. Six months of pandemic isolation has kicked the fight out of many of us, and The Suburbs summed that up a decade before we found ourselves at this crux.
As timeless as Butler’s musing on the middle-aged, middle-class, white-collar “modern man” continues to be, what’s equally as relevant in 2020 is reading “the modern man” as not only a stand-in for capitalism but also the patriarchy and white privilege. In a summer where visions of suburban wars, cities on fire, youth rising in revolt against the complacency plastered across every screen, The Suburbs is an eerily prescient soundtrack from what already feels like simpler times. But in essence, that’s what it was always intended to be. The Suburbs fluctuates between the past, present, and future, the underlying sense is that it only gets harder to hang on to hope the older we get while it only gets easier to scorn and scoff at the exuberance and optimism of youth. But that scorn is something more akin to jealousy, the envy of hopes and dreams that have yet to have reality trample them down. “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,” sings Butler on “Wasted Hours”. Youth may well be wasted on the young but as the album’s stirring coda suggests, so too is hindsight lost on adults: “If I could have it back, / all the time that we wasted / I’d only waste it again.” (“The Suburbs (Continued)”).
It’s oddly comforting to learn that Arcade Fire have been working on a sixth album, which reportedly sounds like “old” Arcade Fire, and Butler says explores “…a lot of lyrical and musical themes that feel almost eerily related to [the COVID-19 pandemic] (we actually have a song called “Age of Anxiety” written a year ago for Christ’s sake…).” Much has changed in the ten years since The Suburbs was released; and in a lot of ways, nothing has.