November 30, 2010

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Douglas Martin’s grandma doesn’t understand how there’s people in the world who wouldn’t want him as a neighbor.

Like many of you who went home for the long weekend, I spent my Thanksgiving in the suburbs. Unlike many of you, I live about five minutes away from my parents. As the rain fell and the snow from the previous few days melted, a quick look outside of the window prompted me to listen to The Suburbs, Arcade Fire’s latest grandiose, overwrought cultural statement disguised as an indie-rock record. I suppose it’s far too late to expect them to record an album closer to Sebadoh’s Bake Sale.

Of course, I’m not knocking the band’s proclivity for all things opulent, especially after we all spent nearly an entire week discussing the hyper-ambitious My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. But listening to the record’s widescreen treatment of a place where many of us spent our teenage years bored and looking for an empty soda can to light a firecracker inside, made me consider how Win Butler and crew view the suburbs — versus someone like me, who lives a quiet life dwelling in the vast expanse of alternative culture while living three blocks away from a golf course.

Opening with the burst of inspired, classic songwriting of the title track, the song is, as always, fueled by Win Butler’s trademark melodramatic sense of nostalgia, lyrics like, “By the time the bombs fell, we were already bored” evoking a desensitized, apathetic generation of children too consumed with their own affluent backgrounds and trivial concerns to care about world issues. The concept of destroying and rebuilding is alluded to many times over the course of the record, reminding me of something a friend wrote about the difference between gentrification and displacement (the former creates new jobs and gives residents more [and sometimes better] alternatives to McDonald’s and Target, while the latter is bad for painfully obvious reasons).

The Suburbs is marked all over by the nostalgia of a man who has long moved on from the suburbs into a “more cultured” big-city life, one who sees those suburbs, the environment of his formative years, as a wasteland of vapidity and conservatism. The smart, liberal-minded people that dwell within the flawlessly plowed streets and among the brand-new housing developments serve mostly as yuppie do-gooders, ones who know what the right thing is and do it mainly to feed their self-consciousness. The depth of these neighborhoods are merely glossed over in a song like “Half Light I,” where Butler sings in harmony with wife Régine Chassagne: “The houses, they hide so much.” “Suburban War” and “Rococo” are tunes that also graze the complexities of the suburbs, the former about the entrapment of the kids who never leave, while the latter about the ones who do and are simply vessels for the changing tide of hipness. “We Used to Wait” is a rumination of the cold distance of technology which makes everything instant yet supremely meaningless, a well-worn sentiment in the form of romanticizing the written letter. Everything is vapid, nothing is tangible. Especially in the suburbs.

Musically, The Suburbs is meant to be taken in just as the actual suburbs are; crystalline newness seeped in classicism, much like the expensive piece from the modern art museum hanging above the fireplace. Its sprawl represents that of the endless tearing down of trees to make way for more housing developments, its sound more colorful than Funeral and less monolithic than Neon Bible. Yet regardless of how well-written these songs are, Arcade Fire are hyper-sincere to the point where the emotion seems manufactured, to the point where you feel like they’re putting on a show (which all artists are, to a degree, but this band makes me feel like they’re bullshitting me hardcore), reminiscent of that friend who thinks nobody ever never invites them to parties because they’re all deep and substantial and nobody gets them, when it’s really just because nobody likes having THAT friend who is always too busy being histrionic to have a good time.

Having lived in the same neighborhood for almost twelve years, I’ve met all sorts of types of people here. There are the ones who are convinced that the suburbs are the only safe place in the world, lacking the hustle and bustle (and crime) of a major metropolis. There are the ones who don’t mind living here but are searching for something more substantial. The Suburbs represents the third archetype, the one who is looking for something more than what these sleepy houses and strip malls have to offer, but are too ensconced in their own self-righteousness to fathom how people could tolerate living there. These different types of personalities is what makes the suburbs so interesting (and works of art about these types of places, like Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom), but The Suburbs is completely missing the push-and-pull of conflicting mindsets, the complexities of upper-middle-class life, which makes the album as pseudo-profound as the characters sneered at in “Rococo.”

Download:
MP3: Arcade Fire-“Suburban War”

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