Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs turns ten years old this summer, and for many people, it wasn’t worth batting an eye. But to others, if it feels like it’s been longer than ten years, than the album has done its job. Having released not one, but two (!!) era defining records within a decade of each other, The Suburbs solidified the band as one of the biggest and best in the world.
However, the album isn’t nearly as specific upon first listen. It plays with time, stretching it, requiring the listener to take a while away from it, live their lives, get a job, get married, have some kids, and then return to it. It’s an album that’s defined by time itself, requiring the listener to bring their own history to reflect on within the record. Upon first visit, you don’t feel any of this of course, because you haven’t lived the other half of your life to compare perspectives. But I’ll remind you what it was like to pop it in the CD player for the first time (how’s that for a retro image?)
Originally, the first go-around isn’t as transparent. Rather, it’s more opaque – all these songs talking about dissatisfaction with the life you’re living, and a craving for an evolution into the next life you will live. But the songs also don’t hit as hard. On surface level, they were well constructed, well written songs, but it didn’t feel like there was anything underneath them. They all hinted at something, as if they all represented a step closer toward the precipice of something, but the “ta-da” moment never came to fruition, but only because I was still stuck in the past the album hinted at – I couldn’t see outside my limited world. All the songs implied something that was just out of reach – dreams, a new life, the feeling we never fully “arrive,” even memory itself. The summer of discovering this record, I had a small thought it would stick with me forever. That feeling soon waned, however, over the years. It was the summer before college, I’d been spending my days sneaking into my neighbor’s backyard to use their pool, and I’d blast The Suburbs while doing laps. It was also the summer I got my first job, and remember blasting that on my way to work. It was the last summer of high school parties, so naturally that album in my car set the mood for the night out. But I didn’t know back then. At the time, I just thought it was a compilation of good rock songs a la Is This It? Nothing worth of sentimental value. But it took the time in between then and now to revisit it to discover that it’s a whole greater than the sum of its parts. It’s the contrast of elements of who you were then and who you are now that gives the album its impenetrable wholeness. Which makes sense as to how they conceived the album art – artists Caroline Robert and Vincent Morisett initially had the idea of driving from Régine Chassagne’s home of Quebec to Win Butler’s home of Houston, and documenting the trip with photos to use as the back projection in front of the car you see on the album cover. (They eventually changed their minds and decided to use photos from The Woodlands, a suburban neighborhood outside of Houston).
But the cover art also puts the album in perspective. You think about how often we spend our time in cars, and how much of our life we spend in them, almost the same amount we spend sleeping. You think about the memories associated with driving around your neighborhood, and the memories you associate with driving now, and how they’ve changed with age. To me, it started as a “car album,” one that made driving so fun and made time pass. Now, I see it as an album that makes you feel time itself. It allows you the opportunity to contextualize your life and put everything that’s behind you in perspective. It makes this intangible, fleeting thing feel just a little more tangible, and less like it’s slipping away. It teaches you how to appreciate time – how to see it, and grieve it, as it passes (see “Wasted Hours”: “All those wasted hours we used to know/Spent the summers staring out the window”).
At the time this album was released, it felt like Arcade Fire were able to do anything – then came the Grammy win, then came headlining festivals, then arenas – it’s crazy to think how big this “indie” band was getting. What else did they have to prove?
After The Suburbs, Arcade Fire began their true transition into the digital era. While Reflektor also garnered awards and praising reviews, it marked the turning point for the band to embrace the synth-laden drive that The Suburbs so justly teased. It received indie and critical love, but it lacked the ethereal charm The Suburbs had. With the fawning of memories now in the rearview mirror, they were ready to embrace a new kind of mainstream sound. With the Daft Punk-produced Everything Now, they embraced what indie bands usually avoid – traditional album marketing and rollouts, but with a twist. To market the album, they set up a fake marketing scheme that paralleled with American consumerism and built on the idea of the intake of media constantly being fed to us. And while it may have been the band’s only “slip up” to date, it elevated them to playing even bigger stage shows and stadiums.
You can say Arcade Fire “changed,” but then again, so have we all. A person changes over time based on the places and the people they surround themselves with. We move on from who we once were. That’s the great thing about Arcade Fire in this new era – they’ve never been afraid to say goodbye to the people they’ve become, and focus on who they’re going to be. For me, it’s learning how to say goodbye to phases in my life in order to become the next better version of myself. And then knowing that, in time, this version will also require a goodbye, which will lead to another, and another… I think we all can take a lesson from them in that respect.