The Anniversary

The Suburbs Turns 10

Arcade Fire were already anointed. By 2010, their 2004 debut Funeral was already regarded as a modern classic, a flag in the ground for a new generation of indie musicians. In 2007, they followed it with the bombastic end-times gloom of Neon Bible, a sophomore outing that wrestled with concepts of America during a bleak stretch of American history. And while that album wouldn’t become quite as breathlessly, rapturously beloved by critics, Arcade Fire’s ascension was uninterrupted. They grew bigger and bigger, their sweeping anthems and ambition garnering them comparisons to the likes of U2 and Bruce Springsteen; they were one of the only artists of their generation that seemed capable of wielding an aging concept of arena rock and actually bringing it to arenas. By the time they were working on their third album, they had the kind of clout that allowed them to take that swing, to make their Big Statement. They took it, and it worked.

When The Suburbs arrived, 10 years ago this Sunday, it was an instant success both creatively and commercially. The album elevated Arcade Fire beyond what many fans thought possible at the time — all the way to a Grammy for Album Of The Year. They were one of the first indie acts of their generation to reach a zenith that just hadn’t seemed possible for a rock band in the 21st century, and they got there with an album that, in some ways, was a collection of smaller moments. Win Butler started looking back at his and his brother/bandmate Will’s childhood in the suburbs of Houston; after receiving a photo from an old friend, the image of a shopping mall served as the impetus for some Proustian voyage back to that place. Régine Chassagne drew on her own suburban life outside Quebec. The band had also taken a year off for the first time, to spend it centering themselves and writing. The Suburbs became the result of a creative burst, an overflow of ideas whittled down to 16 tracks and an hour of music.

The Suburbs wasn’t necessarily nostalgic, nor was it completely new territory for the band. Both Funeral and Neon Bible had some threads that led here, misfits dreaming of something beyond their surroundings, or normal people trying to get by in a frightening world. But The Suburbs took a setting, a concept, and made it a thesis that ran across the whole album. In hindsight, every Arcade Fire album has its sense of scope and thematic heft. But at the time, this felt like everything the band had been building towards, the conclusion of a trilogy that took its cue to make that big statement, to catalog a slice of American life. The album spread out just like the endless planned communities from which it was born, each song like a different look through a different window into a different life.

Musically, however, it was almost like Arcade Fire were coming back down to Earth. There was no one song with the climactic arc of something like “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels),” the arms-aloft singalong potential of “Wake Up.” The blown-out intensity of Neon Bible had been tempered. At the time, Butler went around saying The Suburbs was aesthetically a mix of Neil Young and Depeche Mode. (Their flirtations with synth-driven music, though significant moments on the album, now seem quaint compared to the stylistic shift that would come next.) The comparison points, while perhaps not exact, are telling: The Suburbs was more lived-in, bearing the grain and faded colors of a distant youth recollected. The band had already proven themselves adept at imbuing the ordinary with high drama, but here they took the most mundane and relatable origin story and depicted it with music that transformed it into an opera.

This is, of course, Arcade Fire we’re talking about. Even the smaller songs were gigantic by other bands’ standards. Highlights like “Ready To Start” could rush forward, capturing a young desperation to leave town or remaining opaque enough that it’d soon become a collective catharsis in a festival field; the constriction and release of “We Used To Wait” communicated an attempt to grasp onto things as “our lives are changing fast.” Deep cuts like “Suburban War” wound their way to a conclusion anyone could find themselves in (“All my old friends/ They don’t know me now”), affixed to a song that looks back to tribalism based on what music you liked and how you dressed, sketching out the little identity explorations one undertakes in a small town and making it sound as life-or-death as the word “war” implies.

And yet, there was some paradox of intimacy and grandeur that gave the album its power. It was all there in the beginning, an opening track that did not howl out the gates but instead was like an easygoing overture. The ambling lope of “The Suburbs,” fittingly enough, comes from no discernible place. Equal parts urbane barroom trot and dusty country highway ode, the song was about neither of those places but the exact someplace-nowhere that exists in between. As a curtain rise, it worked immediately — especially if you knew what it was like to live in those places, the towns in the shadow of more distinct existences. Just as Butler had immediately been brought back, “The Suburbs” could bring you back, too.

The suburbs are, of course, an oft-mined topic in 20th and 21st century American art. There is all kinds of classic, allusive iconography scattered throughout the album, aimless drives and listless days. The lyrics reference small acts of rebellion, the ways an outsider tries to make themselves into someone when they live in places where everything looks the same: kids growing their hair out, channeling their disaffection into whatever subcultures they can create for themselves.

In Spike Jonze’s accompanying short film Scenes From The Suburbs, which Win and Will Butler co-wrote, you get a portrait of bored teens figuring things out. They fill the hours riding bikes, playing with toy guns; they stare at planes in the sky and wonder about leaving and who the people are who do such things. (The movie transposes all of this, for some reason, into a dystopian scenario in which there are hard borders between different suburban towns and military units patrolling then removing people from their homes, ratcheting whatever themes of suburbia-as-prison you might locate for yourself up to a rather aggressive timbre.)

While The Suburbs is rooted in the Butlers’ own upbringing, it doesn’t depict their lives explicitly. From the title on down to “the kids” that populate the album, the story of The Suburbs is mostly one of signifiers. The lack of specificity is almost part of the concept. It’s like a run-of-the-mill American childhood turned into universal fable — blank towns that asked you to create your own reality within them represented by blank words that invite you to fill them with your own story.

Which made its signature track, “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains),” a masterful conclusion. The Suburbs is both an album that can make you reflect wistfully on your earlier years, and one that will remind you what it’s like to feel disassociated from where you were raised, disassociated from a place that is in your bloodstream whether you like it or not. These are, again, stereotypical sentiments, known to anyone from one place who sought another. “These days, my life, I feel it has no purpose/ But late at night, the feelings swim to the surface/ ‘Cause on the surface, the city lights shine/ They’re calling at me, ‘Come and find your kind,'” Chassagne sang. “Sometimes, I wonder if the world’s so small/ That we can never get away from the sprawl.”

“Sprawl II” gets at this weird tension running through the album — a vast sense of nothingness as far as you can see that nevertheless suggests there must be somewhere else faraway on that horizon — and makes it sound otherworldly. It’s at once the pinnacle of the album’s commitment to taking these dead-end tales and making them feel grandiose, and the song that conjures the promise of transcending it, finding that new life in a new place. Fittingly, the album ends with an outlier that hints at where Arcade Fire would go next. With its romantic, neon-drenched finale, The Suburbs became fully mythic — all the dead shopping malls rising like mountains representing a place left behind, but also allowing that place to approach something like beauty.

Though Arcade Fire’s rise was steady, The Suburbs is still a turning point. Besides prompting social media befuddlement about who in the hell these people were, the album’s Grammy win seemed to solidify Arcade Fire’s stature as one of the biggest bands of their time. And then they headlined festivals, and played arenas, and each transformative show could convince you they weren’t just getting bigger, they weren’t just a band that put out not one but two generation-defining albums, but that maybe they’d become one of the great artists of their time.

It has been a strange road since then. After The Suburbs found them looking back to make sense of the people they had become, Arcade Fire started operating right in that zone of being a big band commenting on the times we live in. Both 2013’s Reflektor and 2017’s Everything Now grappled with our struggle for connection and sanity in a digital, media-saturated era. Reflektor was greeted with accolades and success on par with The Suburbs, and the shows during the Everything Now era were certainly the kind of cleansing spectacle the band has long since perfected. Though not without its gems, the album could be considered the band’s one significant misstep based on its divisiveness alone. The band’s been working on new music during quarantine. Perhaps we’ll soon know what the next chapter of Arcade Fire will look like.

It’s a funny thing when an album like The Suburbs hits a milestone anniversary. Plenty of music triggers nostalgia; it’s how we are, the way we entangle our memories with what we saw and smelled and heard. But now The Suburbs is 10 years old, and we have our intense memories of where we were then. For me, I was back in small town PA for the first summer after college in New York, lost amidst familiarity and a shifting perception of home and the impossible metropolis I’d replaced it with. I was still between the two, not really knowing if I’d eventually wind up in that new place or that old place. It was a summer bracketed by the National’s High Violet and The Suburbs — two albums that, in different ways, referenced home and where we are now. Both would elevate their creators well beyond those origins. And both provided some kind of clarity for those of us who were still young and caught in transit.

But when I listen to the album I’m not just back there in 2010. I’m back in Pennsyvlania in the ’90s, in a lost era, in a childhood that seems only possible then. I’m back in those summers where time yawned onwards. I’m back in the ’00s, when you’d drive and hang out at the mall or a Barnes & Noble just to have something to do. I’m back in Win Butler’s childhood, too, the ’80s suburbia that birthed this music, a place and time I can only really construct through ’80s kids movies. I’m back in a bunch of places that don’t exist anymore, wondering if that depiction of idle and searching youth will be the same or if the universality of The Suburbs is one that will end in the digital era. Whether this is a piece of our recent indie history but also a document of a way of life that doesn’t just seem out of reach to those of us who have aged, but might not be replicable today.

The Suburbs isn’t just one snapshot, a major moment in music as the ’00s turned to the ’10s. It’s the kind of album that collapses time, sends you tumbling down from one fragment to the next. And it does something strange through all of that. It takes you to a past you may not want, something you were trying to forget without ever really knowing why. It takes you to a place you maybe always wanted to leave and swore you’d never go back to. It takes you to the banality and sameness that made you dream up a new life for yourself. And then it makes all of that feel, somehow, magical.

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