“We used to wait for it / Now we’re screaming / Sing the chorus again.” So posits frontman Win Butler on Arcade Fire’s bruised, nostalgic magnum opus ‘The Suburbs’, which turns 10 years old today (August 2). A wistful meditation on the ever-presence of the past, with a melancholic sonic palette and a preoccupation with unpicking your personal narrative, it has a surprising amount in common with ‘Folklore’, the Taylor Swift album surprise-released to acclaim last week.
The record found the Montreal six-piece gazing into the rearview mirror, mourning their collective loss of innocence, resenting adulthood as they longed for the simplicity of adolescence. And yet that key lyric was about a decade ahead of its time: back in 2010, when ‘The Suburbs’ was first released, social media was yet to infest attention spans and warp reality in the way that it does now. Instant gratification culture was a way off. How could an album be nostalgic and forward-thinking all at once?
Well, that’s the mark of genius, and this is certainly a quality that ebbs and flows through Arcade Fire’s era-defining album. It’s there in the opening crash of cymbals on the aching title track, when Butler recalls his desire to escape the humdrum he now craves: “In the suburbs I / Learned to drive… Grab your mother’s keys, we’re leaving…”. It’s there, too, in the pounding grunge banger ‘Month Of May’, which brings us right up date: “2009 / 2010 – wanna make a record how I felt then”. This is the sound of echoes bouncing back and forth deep in the chasm between the person you were and the person you’ve become.
It was a pivotal moment for the band, who’d broken through with 2004 debut ‘Funeral’, at once jubilant and dour, but stumbled slightly with overblown 2007 follow-up ‘Neon Bible’. It still reached Number Two in the US, but they needed to prove they could go with distance with ‘The Suburbs’.
A blockbuster NME cover feature trailing the record described it as the “one that will surely cement them as the alternative rock band of our time”. The interview played up the fact that although Arcade Fire were massive in the magazine’s universe, and certainly kind-of famous, they weren’t exactly household names. (Indeed, the following year, when ‘The Suburbs’ won Album of the Year at the Grammys, a sarcastic Tumblr account collected countless dumbfounded social media users asking ‘Who are Arcade Fire?’. Luckily a then-in-favour Kanye West was on hand to tweet his support in all-caps: “#ARCADEFIRE”.)
The headline of that NME feature, a quote from Butler, screamed: “THERE’S NO MONEY IN ANY OF OUR BANK ACCOUNTS”. Multi-instrumentalist Régine Chassagne, to whom Butler was and is married, explained that they considered licensing money from a Super Bowl advert unbearably gauche, and had only accepted so they could to donate the million dollars to charity (it went to earthquake-ravaged Haiti). “We were offered crazy amounts to do ads and you don’t want to do it because morally it’s not you,” she said. “Then we thought, ‘Let’s take it and give it away.’”
The implication was that the band were oddballs ill-equipped for the U2 levels of mega-fame that surely beckoned. They were wide-eyed dreamers, too pure and idealistic for this world. Certainly it’s pretty adolescent to find it “morally” objectionable to make money from an advert (the music industry wasn’t quite as decimated as it is now, but was well on its way). Butler was 30 when ‘The Suburbs’ was released; Chassagne was 33. Each had one foot in those adolescent ideals, and another in the daunting reality of the present.
If you happen to be an ageing adolescent yourself, caught between maturity and immaturity, you’ll know exactly how they felt. As Butler sings tremulously on the title track, glimpsing adulthood as it looms in the distance like a skyscraper, ready to eclipse his childhood wonder: “Can you understand / That I want a daughter while I’m still young? / I wanna hold her hand and show her some beauty / Before all this damage is done.”
The reviews of ‘The Suburbs’ were ecstatic. A 9/10 NME rave described the album as a “hauntological record, spooked by memories just out of reach” and “pretty much perfect”. In a 4/5 review, The Guardian argued that album three found Arcade Fire attempting to split the difference between the “quirky alt-rock” of ‘Funeral’ and grandiose ambition of ‘Neon Bible’, and that they’d “accomplished what they set out to achieve”. Pitchfork cracked out the big 8.6 for the record’s “life-affirming message” that “we’re all in this together”.
That last bit is important. Surely almost everyone can relate to the album’s themes – of longing for childhood (‘Wasted Hours’), of the romance of making your life in the big city (‘Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)’), of the loneliness that adulthood can breed (‘City With No Children’). It helped that Win’s brother Will, also a multi-instrumentalist, plays in the band: the two have lived parallel lives since childhood, held together by an invisible string. There’s a unifying truth to ‘The Suburbs’, whether you’re in them or are long gone.
Likewise, Coronavirus-induced global lockdown now has its own official album. Taylor Swift’s ‘Folklore’ is a cultural phenomenon, making history (it racked up 80.6 million Spotify streams on its day of release, a first for a female artist), with good reason. It’s a record that shares ‘The Suburbs’’ homely production, that wistful longing for your past and the notion of wishing to reconnect with yourself. It’s about tracing the tendrils of your life back to a time before things got a bit scary.
I have a strange personal connection to ‘The Suburbs’. In 2011, when I was in that weird post-university wilderness, kicking about my parents’ house in rural east Yorkshire, I was asked by now sadly defunct music paper The Stool Pigeon to cover the Polaris Music Prize, the Canadian version the Mercury Prize, in Toronto. Arcade Fire were nominated for the record and, at the end of the night, received the gong.
I got absolutely battered at the ceremony and made several wonky attempts to extract quotes from Win Butler, who was on the next table and gently rebuffed me twice. It was the kind of thing you’d only do if you were young, ambitious and desperate. At one point I followed him into the toilets, clutching my Dictaphone (easy now), and attempted to doorstep him. You’d probably get bollocked on Twitter for that article nowadays, but naughtiness was still encouraged in 2011. In the end he relented and, when I slurred a question about Canadian arts funding being cut, gave an incredibly thoughtful response about creative industries having become “a proper economic force in society” that also help “people have fuller lives”.
It was a vertiginous encounter: an older, famous – in my world – rock star imparting wisdom to a young man who very much did not have his shit together. I’m now the age Butler was when 22-year-old me was bothering him; it’s odd to think about everything that’s happened since then, and to wonder what 22-year-old me would make of it.
And I’m sure anyone could say the same of the last 10 years of their life. In that NME cover story, Butler explained: “The album’s neither a love letter nor an indictment of the suburbs… it’s a letter from the suburbs.” If anything, the record could do with one or two more absolute belters – by accident or design, it doesn’t quite scratch the itch the way you want it to. It’s “just out of reach”, as the NME review put it, like memory itself. And yet it’s somehow just enough.
Arcade Fire’s time capsule third album, like Taylor Swift’s ‘Folklore’, is the sound of whispers from the past creeping into your present, of carefree days gone by reminding you of the good times to come, of nostalgia helping you make sense of the more difficult now. And that’s why, in this strangest of times, we need it more than ever.