Take a Drive into the Sprawl: A Love of The Suburbs

Ed. Note: Our “Love Story” feature encourages writers to tell the story behind their love for their favorite movie, band, or television show. Today, Jeremy writes about Arcade Fire’s album The Suburbs.

Writing a Love Story seems like a straightforward task: Pick something you love, and tell your personal story to explain why you love it. Telling a story well is a fun challenge, so writing why I love a music album should be a blast. Then why am I spinning my wheels like a car stuck in the snow of this unrelenting winter? Why does explaining why I love Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs (2010) feel like explaining why peanut butter is delicious?

I could talk about the music, which is terrific. The music on Arcade Fire’s debut, Funeral, was terrific as well, and in my opinion the band took an awkward step into a pretentious left field when they followed it up with Neon Bible. But The Suburbs felt like the proper next step from Funeral: it has the same complexity and bombasity balanced on a thin rock-and-roll edge, but matured and with a much more coherent beginning-to-end sound. And seeing the band put on their spectacular live show in 2010, all seven members sprawled across a stage with multiple drum sets on risers, sealed the deal: the music is amazing.


But there are other amazing music albums that I don’t love.

When talking about why she loves the Avett Brothers, my wife often says that several of their songs (e.g., “The Traveling Song”) have the ability to transport her to the country home where she grew up. Well, I grew up in the suburbs, so maybe that’s it. The Suburbs, after all, often plays less like a music album for me and more like a photo album through which I can flip and revisit my past. The lyrics are stacked with images I know well, propped up by music with the appropriate shifting atmosphere (serenity, desolation, angst, beauty, safety).

But here’s where the love story formula breaks down for me.

I’ve tried several times to tell the story of how I spent my first eighteen years in the suburbs and how this album serves to reconnect me to those years, but every time I look at what I’ve written, I see a hulking billboard rise up from behind my words: “NOT UNIQUE.” It’s my story, but it never feels personal, because it’s the same story as anyone who grew up in the suburbs. Especially a suburb between the coasts. Especially anyone born in the 70s or 80s. If I told my suburban story to show why I love The Suburbs, it would just be an unnecessary layer: Win Butler has already told the story, the same story we all have. If I tell my story to show how I connect with Win’s when I listen to the album, I might as well write about how much I LOVE Office Space, because omigod, you guys, let me tell you about the offices I have worked at, I had like four bosses, and they all sent such STUPID memos, OH AND THE PRINTER, I hated that printer so much, I wanted to smash it, the thing always said INK LOW but there was plenty of ink!

I don’t need to tell my story, because The Suburbs already did: I grew up in the suburbs, where music divided us into tribes, where he grew his hair so I grew mine, where dead shopping malls rose like mountains beyond mountains, where the half light could make a place new, where cops shone their lights on the reflectors of our bikes, where all we see are kids in buses longing to be free, where the kids want to be so hard but in my dreams we’re still screaming and running through the yard, where I would eat right out of your hand using great big words that I didn’t understand, where I quit these pretentious things and just punched the clock, where the city’s changed so much since I was a little child, where we’re still driving around and around and around and around, where if I could have it back, all the time that we wasted, I’d only waste it again.

So, then, is that it? I love the album because it takes me back to my childhood? I’m not sure it’s that simple. I think I love the album because it stirs emotions I have about the suburbs that normally lie dormant. The Suburbs is not a stroll down memory lane. Because I was wrong earlier, when I said it is like a photo album. Childhood and adolescence are not like a vacation, for which a photo album allows you to spend a little more time in that place and time. The suburbs are a part of who I am, not a distinct place I once visited. Instead of a photo album, imagine a jar of natural peanut butter (did you see that callback coming? I didn’t). It’s been sitting in your pantry for a couple weeks, and the oils have separated. To enjoy the peanut butter in its proper state again, you need to stir it up. Well, the suburbs are the oils that separate out of my existence over time, pooling somewhere deep in my subconscious; listening to The Suburbs is a vigorous stir, necessary to occasionally reintegrate my past with who I am now.

Read more from Jeremy here and on Twitter: @jereminate.