The Suburbs sounds like adolescence, and that’s not just because of its prominence on my favorite Pandora Radio channels in the early 2010s. Arcade Fire’s Win and Will Butler wrote the album about the Texas suburbs where they grew up—and in doing so, they also wrote one of the definitive records about the experience of growing up itself.
The notion of the suburbs as a breeding ground for youthful yearning wasn’t new lyrical territory for Arcade Fire by any means. However, their previous songs on the matter had dealt mainly with escaping the suburbs. 2004’s “Neighborhood #2 (Laika)” told the tale of a mythical older brother who left home to set off on “a great adventure.” 2007’s “No Cars Go” spoke of a secret realm that only “kids” knew about, one that hadn’t yet been darkened by the curse of modern civilization. The Suburbs was the first time Arcade Fire really allowed themselves to linger amongst the identical houses and picket fences.
The narratives we tell ourselves about both the suburbs and childhood tend to be rather one-sided: those were the glory days, or I had to get out. Thankfully, on The Suburbs, Arcade Fire takes a more nuanced approach to the topic, weaving moments of both bright-eyed bliss and crushing dread into their narrative. This is evident right away through the title track. Over the steady plunking of a piano, Win Butler sings such nostalgia-inducing lines as “Grab your mother’s keys, we’re leaving,” but he also speaks of a “suburban war” that has torn the town apart. While his narrator feels threatened by the violence that surrounds him, he’s not too overwhelmed to gaze into the future: “So can you understand/why I want a daughter while I’m still young?” he asks during the song’s painstaking climax. “I want to hold her hand/and show her some beauty before this damage is done/but if it’s too much to ask, if it’s too much to ask/then send me a son.”
In the ensuing tracks, Butler continues to dissect youth culture with the immediacy of a gonzo journalist. In the deliciously baroque-flavored “Rococo,” he takes aim at artsy teens who use “great big words” to convey an air of superiority. In “Sprawl II,” he recalls the loveliness of kissing on swingsets in the dark and the terror of having that intimacy interrupted by police lights. Yet for all his dedication to this theme, he never allows himself to become constrained by it. Youth doesn’t exist in a vacuum—it affects everything that comes afterward, and throughout The Suburbs, Butler acknowledges this by commenting on the trappings of the corporate world. In “Ready to Start,” which sounds like your typical indie-rock romp if you don’t listen to the cynical lyrics, he laments, “The businessmen are drinking my blood/Like the kids in art school said they would…” In “City with No Children,” he paraphrases a George Orwell quote to call out the hypocrisy of the powerful: “You never trust a millionaire/quoting the Sermon on the Mount.” Before you can accuse Butler, a chart-topping, internationally recognized musician, of being a hypocrite himself, he looks inward: “I used to think I was not like them/But I’m beginning to have my doubts.” Angst doesn’t dissipate with adulthood, and Butler knows this well.
Considering that The Suburbs is largely about reflecting on the past, it makes sense that the final track on the record, “The Suburbs (Continued),” is a callback to the first. The outro opens with an orchestral swell of strings. Then Butler murmurs, “If I could have it back/all the time that we wasted/I’d only waste it again…” The music fades away slowly, like a child’s wave goodbye through the rear window of a station wagon.
Today, Will Butler is 37, and Win Butler is 40. They’re both miles from their childhood home—and Win has finally been granted the son he once sang of. Yet they’ll forever be tied to their memories of youth through this album, and so will we.