Thursday, August 19, 2010

The State That We Are In, Pt. 2: The Suburbs

Some albums make you think. Some albums make you feel. Some albums make you think about how you feel. If you're like Win Butler and his band Arcade Fire, you feel something and you sense it's important but you're not quite sure what it is. The chorus of the song "Modern Man" from the excellent new album The Suburbs is "Makes me feel like. . . /Makes me feel like. . . /Makes me feel like. . ." Those ellipses go to the heart of the problem. What this album isn't is a facile critique of the banality of the suburbs. The album isn't really about the suburbs despite the title and the number of songs in which the word pops up. It really has to do with finding one's self in an uncentered world, for which the suburbs is the perfect geographical metaphor. If the metaphysical world, like the physical world, has no sense of place, how does one navigate through it?

As Regine Chassagne sings in "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)": "These days my life I feel it has no purpose, but late at night the feelings swim towards the surface" and then later, "I sometimes wonder if the world's so small, that we can never get away from the sprawl." The latter line suggests the dilemma of our age: There is no escaping the all-enveloping presence of the modern world; it even pours into our internal world, crowding out all else.

Throughout the album the songs intimate the potential of breaking through the meaningless chaff that surrounds us. It offers no answers, although it gets close when Win Butler sings in "Deep Blue": "Hey, put the cellphone down for a while./In the night there is something wild./Can you hear it breathing?/And hey, put that laptop down for a while./In the night there is something wild./I feel it's leaving me." (In case you're wondering "Deep Blue" is a reference to the IBM computer that played Gary Kasparov in chess. Kasparov won in 1996 and Deep Blue won the rematch in 1997.) The answer seems to be found at night, in darkness, with the world shut out, reinforced in the line from "Half Light I": "Night tears us loose and in the half-light we're free."

Having just read John Updike's novel Rabbit, Run, this album reminded me of the start of the novel in which Rabbit Angstrom goes to pick up his son at his parent's house and ends up driving across several states through the night only to end up near where he began. Except he doesn't return to his family. Instead, he ends up leading a different life in a town on the other side of the mountain from his own. He can't quite escape his small-town existence even though there is a life force in him that the small-town life can't contain. Driving also is a recurring act in The Suburbs, appropriately enough. It's more a metaphor for a search rather than an escape. Just like Rabbit Angstrom, who has the feeling, but doesn't know where it will take him, Arcade Fire feels there is a life to be found amidst the lifeless sprawl surrounding us. From "Empty Room": "When I'm by myself, I can be myself/And my life is coming but I don't know when."

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