Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

The Suburbs, by Arcade Fire, and the Sweet Part of the City, by The Hold Steady

Dateline: 3:15 pm October 15, 2010 Filed under:

Singers have long sung the praises of cities. Frank Sinatra spread the news about New York, and Art Garfunkel sang wistfully of the same city. John Lennon made New York City cool all over again, even in the 1970s. Bruce Springsteen sang about the backstreets and 10th Avenue. And of course Petula Clark sang about downtown.

All these urban tunes, but never has a band directly sang about suburbs and sprawl…until now. Arcade Fire in their wonderful new album “The Suburbs” sing about suburban alienation, and for the first time in rock ‘n’ roll, directly indicate that urban form and geography may be to blame.

“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,” Win Butler sings in “Suburban War.”

Butler and his brother Will, not incidentally, grew up in The Woodlands, outside of Houston. The Woodlands are one of the nicer auto-dominated suburbs I’ve ever seen. “The past won’t rest until we jump the fence and leave it all behind” and “grab your mother’s keys and we’ll leave tonight” are but two of the lines that evoke trying to escape suburbia. Nonetheless, imagining myself there as a teenager, I can understand his point of view. There are probably more exciting places to be.

Lines like “spent the summer staring out the window,” “first they built the road, then they built the town, that’s why were still driving around and around,” “kids in buses longing to be free,” “in the city their hearts start to sing…we were shocked in the suburbs” all point to the alienation and even revolution that permeate the album.

To be fair, there is also a line about being lost in the wilderness downtown, so perhaps the overarching theme is longing to leave this place to find one where you are more accepted, and that the suburbs provide a convenient, believable backdrop for teenage angst and boredom. Still “Sprawl I” starts with the sound of tires rhythmically pinging along the seams of an overpass, and the first line is “took a drive in to the sprawl,” so the sense of place (or lack thereof) is very well established and revisited throughout the album. I get that. But draw your own conclusions.

My favorite line, from “Sprawl II,” is:
Living in the sprawl
the dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains
and there’s no end in sight

Now there’s something we can all identify with!

A brilliant album. I highly recommend it.

And then there’s The Hold Steady, whose newest album “Heaven is Whenever” starts with the line “Back when we were living up on Hennepin,” a street in Minneapolis. That song, “The Sweet Part of the City,” describes and embraces city life:

The sweet part of the city,
the parts with the bars and restaurants,
we used to meet under the marquees.

That could be anywhere, but speaks to my urban instincts. The Hold Steady may be based in New York, but they have consistently used Minneapolis as their muse, to describe that sweet part of the city, with its wicked brew of faces, places, sights, sounds and smells that can be fun, invigorating, but can lead to plenty of trouble.

“Heaven is Whenever” comes highly rated, but I also recommend The Hold Steady’s 2006 release “Boys and Girls in America.”

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