A Warning on Contemporary Architecture [Arcade Fire]

With the albums Funeral and Neon Bible, Arcade Fire proved to us that they were going to write music about serious subjects with coherent themes. For years popular music has been an open discourse where difficult or heavy subject matter is heard. But rare is the band who can make an album that has a consistent theme throughout, and do it well. Ideas surrounding grief defined the Funeral (2004), while ideas surrounding religion and politics defined Neon Bible (2007). From watching Winn Butler in concert videos and reading interviews with him, he has definite ideas about what he wants to communicate to a crowd. At times he seems to have that Vedder-like stoicism mixed with wild emotion that fueled much of Pearl Jam’s music and lyrics. Yet like Pearl Jam, they are a unified group, including Butler’s brother William and wife Regine Chassange, making strength in numbers.

The American experience of the suburbs is the band’s newest topic of analysis. The Suburbs, like their previous records, is a loaded title. While some album titles seem to be just a random word or phrase the band likes, for Arcade Fire they seem to be thesis statements. Notice on Funeral, songs titled “Neighborhoods” and “Neighborhood 2” generally deal with how connecting with friends eases tension within family. The new album, dealing with a primary topic of our generation, sets itself out to tackle the lifestyle and landscapes created by our parents and grandparents.

While people today often speak negatively of the suburbs, the compromise between an agricultural lifestyle and the appeal of the city, we are only beginning to see it’s sociological effects. It seems this album is bringing the phenomena to the forefront of our attention. We are conscious of a seemingly fragmented culture known as the suburbs.  But what problems does this culture create? And does the Arcade Fire give us any answers?

“Kids wanna be so hard
But in my dreams we’re still screamin’ and runnin’ through the yard
And all of the walls that they built in the seventies finally fall
And all of the houses they build in the seventies finally fall

Meant nothin’ at all
Meant nothin’ at all
It meant nothing”

One of the characteristics of suburbia is the rapid pace of construction and new development. Those with ecological and community concerns might view developing what was formerly countryside into “sprawl” as being regress rather than progress. These lyrics here suggest that what the suburban culture created would soon collapse because it was built poorly. There are different reasons why the houses could fall. Was it the materials that created the problem or people’s short-sighted intentions to stay in one location? Reading the lyrics of the Suburbs seems to make us ask more questions about what this phenomena means to our future more than it gives us answers.

When our generation decides what kind of neighborhood we will build, we might reject the long commute (“Grab your mother’s keys we’re leavin’”) and the construction of new houses (“So move your feet from the hot pavement into the grass”). Instead we may desire to live near our workplaces and buy a used house rather than clearing a small forest to build a new one.

The Arcade Fire is provoking its audience to think hard about why things are the way that they are. One writer from NPR described the Arcade Fire and indie rock band the National as the two bands addressing “how a world that’s gone mad is affecting us on a personal level.” We can only hope for more artists to follow their example of earnestness and urgency in addressing what is happening in our generation. The Suburbs is an album that makes us reconsider how we imagine the architecture of our neighborhoods and cities. Fortunately, Arcade fire found a way to use good music to give their ideas on why the world is so jacked up.

by Nate Branson