I love the way that Arcade Fire packaged The Suburbs. I love the gatefold design and the foil-stamped back cover. I love the clean design of the dust sleeves, and the contrast between the neatly set, serifed typography and the hastily scrawled, all-caps handwriting. I love that someone–maybe Win Butler, maybe an intern with better handwriting–took the time to annotate every repetition of every line, and crossed out their mistakes. I am an unabashed commodity fetishist–I wouldn’t own this many records if I weren’t–and I have to think that The Suburbs package was produced with people like me in mind.
Which is part of the reason why it’s so brilliant. In Retromania, Simon Reynolds writes eloquently of what he calls the glutting and clotting that collectors suffer as their collection swells. According to Reynolds, as the number of choices available to a person increases, so too does their impatience with whatever they happen to be engaging with at the time. This phenomenon has become widespread with the advent of the iPod and unlimited music-streaming services. “It’s easy to imagine that as the collection’s size approaches infinity, the appetite to listen to music shrinks to infinitesimal,” he says.
In a cultural world in which every flit of whimsy can be immediately answered and indulged, well-designed objects like The Suburbs package become increasingly important, both for the artist creating the objects and for the consumer/audience. They command attention and, to a certain extent, silence the temptation to search for other things, that forever-present voice that whispers on and on about the existence of other knowledge. And while it’s only worth as much as the audience puts into it, great album art can serve as an excellent grounding rod, something to hold on to that will pull you deeper into the music. Still, it’s strange, as a music fan, to have to be coaxed into listening to music. Reynolds again: “Containing music within a grid map of systematic knowledge is a form of protection against the loss of self that is music’s greatest gift.”
All of which is another way of saying that I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed sitting on my floor this morning. I drew my knees up to my chest and rested the dust sleeve on my thighs, reading and nodding along to The Suburbs. Funeral will justifiably always be seen as Arcade Fire’s defining statement, and it’s certainly played a fundamental role in my life: I developed a fascination with Montreal, and eventually ended up in grad school there, in part because of that record. Montreal was the first major city that either I or my wife ever lived in, our first chance not only to make a life as a married couple, but to develop the kind of urban lifestyle that we’d both dreamed of as kids growing up in our respective suburbs. While it’s been nearly two years since we left, the city holds a deeply special place in our heart and in our family’s history.
Which is why there’s something special about The Suburbs. Arcade Fire announced the record’s existence in, I believe, late spring of 2010 with an incredibly exclusive show played at a house in the McGill Ghetto. They’d go on to play several secret shows throughout Quebec, including one in the parking lot of the mall in Longueuil, the South Shore suburb where Régine Chassagne grew up. The notion of who “belongs” in Quebec and Montreal, who can truly call it “home,” is deeply complicated, but as part-time Montrealers, it felt as though the city was at the center of the world leading up to The Suburbs’ release; it might be uncouth to include myself in the first-person plural here, but it felt like this record was for us.
Even so, like most of what I own, it’s spent far more time on the archival shelf than it has in the small stack of records I’m currently enjoying that sits near the turntable. I’ll bring it out every now and then, when I need something pleasant enough to fill in the background when people are over, but The Suburbs gets most of its listens in the car, particularly on roadtrips, once Rachelle and I have grown sick of podcasts. I’ll typically play the title track, then skip forward to the all-together-now stomper “Rococo,” then we’ll barrel ahead again to “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains),” occasionally detouring for the punk sideshow “Month of May.” By that time, my energy’s spent, and Rachelle’s fallen asleep. The quieter tracks, those more lyrically driven, whose themes develop over the course of the song and can’t be as easily understood in the moment of their shouting, never get played. Sure, the interior of a Camry roaring up I-65 isn’t the best venue for attentive music-listening, and the hum of the car and the hypnotic churn of passing traffic and receding forestland probably make immersion in deep aesthetic subtleties mildly life-threatening. But this is, for most of us, how we get our listening done, whether we’re trapped in cars or blocking out the sidewalks or keeping our minds from unraveling in our cubicles. As Reynolds notes, it’s music as utility, a service we stream into our house and are only aware of in its absence.
But as I sat on my floor today, my mind wandering from the record on the table in front of me over to the questions of whether I should pick up my library books today or tomorrow, when I should eat lunch, what to wear to a job interview, I snapped back to the printed sheet I held in my lap. I kept my eyes focused on the lyrics, scanning them, allowing myself to–and here’s where music-listening begins to seem like some gross indulgence–luxuriate in them. It’s so unseemly, driven by a kind of bourgeois guilt, the embarrassment I feel describing what listening–really listening–to music is actually like. So much easier to skip it altogether, both in life and in print, and bolster the music-listening experience with historical arcana and closely tracked references to the record’s particular antecedents. (Funny how even my language here, describing that process, slips back into a kind of higher academese.) Reynolds writes about the polarity of knowledge (which he equates with control) and true immersion, and there is no person more heavily invested in knowledge, in what analysis he might reap from an album, than the music critic who knows he’s about to write.
It’s a nice irony to be thinking of all of these things while listening to The Suburbs, a record whose major thematic focus is the effect of technology–whether of the electronic or motor-vehicular variety–on our ability to engage with art and with one another. Win Butler and Régine Chassagne spend most of the record wandering through a kind of isolated haze, wondering aloud when they allowed technology to begin dictating the terms of human existence. It’s easy to laugh at “We Used to Wait”’s postal nostalgia, and to dismiss Butler–a man whose band records with a massive church organ and who used to dress in woolen undertaker suits–as a hopeless philistine, but he implicates himself early and often here (“Now my voice is screaming, ‘Sing the chorus again!’”). In fact, The Suburbs, which is by far the leanest of Arcade Fire’s records, is given most of its texture by the steady rush of electronics that float in and out of the songs, and the videos for “We Used to Wait” and “Sprawl II” both represent revolutionary steps forward in the ways artists use the Internet to make music videos. But the weight of abundance, with the city representing a kind of escape into the techno-future, wears the singers down, and leaves them ultimately alone: It’s no wonder that most of these songs are just as often about memories as they are the failure of the present, just as it’s no wonder that most of them are addressed to a “you.” Where progress reneged on its promise of greater fulfillment, the old-fashioned emotional mess of human relationships, with people likeminded or otherwise, proves to be some kind of partial answer, one that’s not contingent upon population density or the availability of free wi-fi. The suburbs we’ve escaped weren’t always pleasant, or else we wouldn’t have invented the future, but at least there it was easier to hear.