Car Culture Audio
Your life is the star of the new, geopersonalized video for Arcade Fire’s “We Used to Wait.” Plug your childhood address into the website and find yourself there in the video, running through the streets of your youth. A flock of birds flies you over a Google Maps version of your old house. But of course it isn’t you. Or, it is and isn’t.
The Suburbs brings us deep into a God-haunted geography, a space the band began to explore in their first two albums. The beats and lyrics of 2004’s Funeral conjured dark-avenued neighborhoods, sleepy deaths with eyes wide shut, and fiery candles, suns, and streetlights constantly on the verge of being extinguished. Three years later Neon Bible expanded the topography, as Win Butler and Régine Chassagne sang about fire and light battling black waves and black mirrors, vision struggling against blindness, hope confronting fear and pain. Funeral was grounded in a tangible microcosm of cars and streets, ice storms and bedrooms. Neon Bible spiraled macrocosmically to places out of reach—the middle of the ocean, the caged body, places where no cars or planes or ships can go. In all these cosmic places, some divine force, perhaps a deus absconditus, remains obscured.
The human and divine micro and macrocosms of the first two albums come into uneasy communion in The Suburbs. Losing oneself on suburban streets and finding oneself again in estranged places, God’s presence oscillates with absence. The only reliable constants are the abilities to doubt and to drive: “Grab your mother’s keys / we’re leaving” (“Suburban War”).
Layered, eclectic instrumentation and genre-switching meet Butler and Chassagne’s voices to make the sound of The Suburbs distinctively Arcade Fire. The usual guitars, drums, and bass are interlaced with synthesizers, violins, French horns, and seemingly whatever else the seven-piece band has on hand. The punkish “Month of May” segues into the Wilco-inspired “Wasted Hours,” while the flavor of Springsteen in “Sprawl I (Flatland)” melds into the synth beat of “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains).” The shifting sounds may be indicative of music-making in an iPod Shuffle era, but it keeps the ears and mind moving. And movement, especially when it happens in a car, is key to the faith that drives the album.
Writing in Paste magazine after the release of Neon Bible, Sean Michaels notes how frontman Win Butler takes the paradoxes of religion seriously. Butler tells Michaels that “Neon Bible is addressing religion in a way that only someone who actually cares about it can. It’s really harsh at times, but from the perspective of someone who thinks it has value.” Butler was raised Mormon and studied theology for some time, but it is clear that faith and critical questioning of it are equally important. Butler adds,
- There are two kinds of fear: The Bible talks a lot about fear of God—fear in the face of something awesome. That kind of fear is the type of fear that makes someone want to change. But a fear of other people makes you want to stay the same, to protect what you have. It’s a stagnant fear; and it’s paralyzing.
This threat of stagnation makes for lyrics in perpetual motion, movement without destination.
Between fears, earthly and heavenly, and between the city and country, lie the suburbs. Like a sonic version of Google Maps, the “neighborhoods” that The Suburbs drives us through are absent of people, meanings, and deities. Modern kids talk about what they don’t understand. Rooms are empty, and voices are only echoes.
The invention of the suburbs in the 20th century was only possible with the invention of the automobile. Suburban cars and sprawl hollowed out the city centers, and with the loss of a center, destinations began to change. In the face of these transformations, two dominant socio-religious reactions emerged. Freed from centralized, traditional denominations, people flocked to Evangelicalism, even as the ubiquitous automobile and wide open suburban spaces gave rise to megachurches. It is therefore fitting that from his suburban Saddleback Church, with parking spaces for thousands, Rick Warren made a bestselling mantra out of The Purpose Driven Life. When the physical center was lost, spiritual entrenchment followed. Decentering led to recentering.
But the young in these non-places, as Butler found in his childhood outside Houston, had a different reaction. Driving became driving for the sake of driving, moving for fear of standing still—a constant theme in the lyrics of all three albums. Think of Funeral‘s “In the Backseat”: “I’ve been learning to drive / My whole life.” Or the final line of “No Cars Go” from Neon Bible: “Don’t know where we’re going.” Or The Suburbs‘ “Suburban War”: “Let’s go for a drive and see the town tonight / There’s nothing to do but I don’t mind when I’m with you.” There’s no arriving with Arcade Fire and the suburban lives they claim to represent. We’re always on our way. No purpose in this driven life.
For all its concern for space, The Suburbs gives equal attention to time. If the suburban experience is dislocation, it is also atemporal, unhinged from history.
Neon Bible was oriented, apocalyptically so, toward future fears and doubts: antichrists, slim chances for survival, nothing lasting forever. The Suburbs heads to the past. The story is not historical, but mnemonic, a subjective backward turn toward another life seen through the present’s lens. The album is shot through with nostalgia, the most distinctly suburban kind of temporality, even as it questions the stability and surety of that perceived past.
This mood echoes Douglas Coupland’s story, “1000 years (Life After God).” Coupland’s pseudo-memoir begins in the suburbs, with children swimming in “pools the temperature of blood”:
Afterward we toweled off and drove in cars on roads that carved the mountain on which we lived … the act of endless motion itself a substitute for any larger form of thought. The radio would be turned on, full of love songs and rock music; we believed the rock music but I don’t think we believed in the love songs, either then or now. Ours was a life lived in paradise and thus it rendered any discussion of transcendental ideas pointless.
In Coupland’s initial suburban recollection, the decentered places had no transcendent reference point, no need for a “larger form of thought,” and no city center. Yet it was still whole, full of presence. The sound of rock music, not echoes of it, provided something to believe in, as driving itself substituted for any grander missing thing. Paradise indeed.
Yet the nostalgic search for lost origins takes a turn, as places of the past become metaphors for lived faith in the here and now:
Life was charmed but without politics or religion. It was the life of children of the children of the pioneers—life after God—a life of earthly salvation on the edge of heaven. Perhaps this is the finest thing to which we may aspire, the life of peace, the blurring between dream life and real life—and yet I find myself speaking these words with a sense of doubt.
The certainty of the past tense, the charmed paradise lost, turns to doubt in the present tense. This is the doubt that emerges when nostalgia is swept aside, when the present’s real life splinters open a fabricated past. On closer inspection, paradise recollected is not all its cracked up to be.
Coupland’s words morph into Butler’s on “City with No Children”:
I dreamt I drove home to Houston
On a highway that was underground
There was no light that we could see
As we listened to the sound of the engine failing
I feel like I’ve been living in
A city with no children in it
A garden left for ruin by a millionaire inside
Of a private prison
You never trust a millionaire
Quoting the sermon on the mount
I used to think I was not like them
But I’m beginning to have my doubts
My doubts about it.
Butler confuses past and future mythologies here and casts doubt on both. The garden of the past paradise has been left to ruin just as the hoped-for City of God has neither children nor a millionaire in it. Between lost promises of the past and future, with no one to give the keys to the urban kingdom, we relocate to the suburbs.
As the nostalgia clears, Arcade Fire brings us an apocalyptic revelation: the city is a ruin, the downtown has become a wilderness, and we remain on the fringes, driving.
S. Brent Plate is a writer, editor, and part-time college professor at Hamilton College. Recent books include A History of Religion in 5 1/2 Objects: Bringing the Spiritual To Its Senses (Beacon Press) and Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-creation of the World (Columbia University Press). His essays have appeared at Salon, The Los Angeles Review of Books, America, The Christian Century, and The Islamic Monthly. More at www.sbrentplate.net or on Twitter @splate1.