[26 August 2010]
Despite what the current consensus indicates, the members of Arcade Fire do not know a heck of a lot about urban planning. If they did, they’d realize that the suburbs they so bemoan emerged out of the various neighborhoods they constructed back in 2004. And that’s usually what occurs when any locale draws enough hype/praise/critical attention that legions of people migrate to it. Growth happens. It’s just as inevitable as finding a Starbucks in Manhattan.
The question of whether or not that growth is a good thing—for the band, for “society”—is really a separate consideration. The more pressing matter, now that “universal acclaim” has been bestowed upon the band’s latest album The Suburbs, is simply recognizing the irony inherent in the album’s core lament: Arcade Fire have sprawled outward, musically and conceptually, like so many strip malls. Also, Bruce Springsteen grew up in Freehold, NJ, which is suburban at best.
If Funeral was close to home, and Neon Bible gestured toward grand universality, then The Suburbs occupies that middle space—a space between close-knit familial relationships and the wide world outside of them, where your own private prison feels big enough to incarcerate everyone.
This kind of back-and-forth migration is a natural part of most any maturation process, which means that it is not inherently bad. Musically, The Suburbs delivers on nearly every track; there’s nothing on it that doesn’t sound exactly like Arcade Fire should sound three albums into its (still young) career. Charlie Wilmoth at Dusted Magazine does a great job of developing this point by mapping Arcade Fire’s growth alongside the metamorphosis of indie rock in the 2000s. As both have matured, Wilmoth contends, they have also consumed wider and wider varieties of other, sometimes tangential, musical styles, resulting in both becoming bigger—less parochial, more sprawling, and, at times, even bloated.
Given this context, it is quite easy to excavate the one central weakness of an otherwise accomplished album: an utter lack of self-reflexivity. Throughout The Suburbs Arcade Fire seems completely ill-equipped to understand both where it came from and, more pressingly, where it is now. That kind of tunnel vision is what leads the band to articulate such an uncritical urban bias. The full title of the record is key here: Arcade Fire brashly claim the right to present its audience with the suburbs. The band’s vision blots out the visions held by others, some of whom might actually be suburbanites. It’s an arrogant, egocentric posture befitting, well, a suburban teenager.
Judith Halberstam has written cogently about the marginalizing force of the urban bias that runs throughout most contemporary cultural scholarship. Though Halberstam writes specifically in the context of queer culture, her overall argument—that many people who live in sub-urban places actually enjoy their lives—can easily be positioned against the claims that Arcade Fire attempt to make. Whatever the suburbs might be lacking, they are not always and everywhere filled with empty rooms, dead shopping malls, and wasted hours. Moreover, context and perspective have much to do with determining what constitutes waste, boredom, or any of the other strawmen that Arcade Fire attack. What places the group in a position to upbraid “modern kids” for attempting to find their way in the world? If it is simply that the band is older, more world-weary, perhaps more cynical, then it (at least on the much-championed “Rococo”) sounds more like overbearing parents than youthful comrades in the suburban war that looms over the album’s 16 tracks.
These arguments are, in many ways, just as obvious as arguments about the negatives of suburban existence. The problem is that very few people actually champion life in the suburbs. Instead, as the metascores are bearing out, the critical consensus is tacitly buying into the notion, no matter how metaphoric the band might attempt to make it (comparing shopping malls to mountains is not particularly poetic, BTW), that any place with a Wal-Mart must be entirely void of culture or meaning—despite, of course, said culturally vapid corporation keeping the culturally relevant album The Suburbs in stock.
Since it has not even been a month since The Suburbs hit store shelves, it would be premature to make any bold pronouncements about where Arcade Fire should go from here. Again, the record, for the most part, is top-notch, so advocating for any kind of a change in direction or back-to-basics approach or any other music journo cliché would be just as clumsy as “Sprawl I (Flatland)”’s narrative. Regardless of how the band continues to grow, it is pretty clear that they need to renovate its entire approach to lyric writing, gutting its songs of their now customary bombast. After all, The Suburbs could be a nice space to inhabit if we weren’t constantly being told how lousy they are.