The Art of the Cinematic Album | Coming-of-Age in The Suburbs
Coming-of-age movies have a bad reputation. Often dismissed as hackneyed Oscar bait, a lingering criticism despite the classic status of several releases that fit the mould. The likes of Little Miss Sunshine, Boyhood and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off earned their adulation thanks to flawless acting and direction, realistic, relatable scripts and meticulous cinematography. As part of his Secrets of Cinema series for BBC, English film critic Mark Kermode presents a recipe for the perfect coming-of-age movie. Kermode states:
These films deal with characters on the cusp of something, struggling through that netherworld between childhood and adulthood. The best of them capture the authentic feeling of growing up and that has universal appeal.
Referencing some key movies within the genre, his recipe includes:
- A protagonist seeking to define themselves.
- An unfamiliar yet familiar setting – often sometime in the past if not the literal past of its creator.
- A pop jukebox soundtrack to conjure a specific era.
- A gang which can provide a source of support or danger.
- Loss of innocence via an emotionally resonant event late in the film.
- An ending that suggests an uncertain future for the now wiser protagonist.
Of that third point, filmmaker Stephen Woolley once said:
Pop music in movies is like a knife: you twist it and nostalgia comes pouring out.
With this in mind, and as we have examined before, pop music itself can be the movie. The coming-of-age tale is one that has been told many ways in the modern age – countless books have been written and movies made to capture it. But in the medium of pop music, arguably the best example is Arcade Fire’s 2010 album, The Suburbs.
By then the band were already the poster children for modern indie-rock thanks to Win Butler’s dramatic vocals, ambitious production and instrumentation, and the wide array of emotions they evoked. However, The Suburbs was Arcade Fire’s true commercial and critical breakthrough.
Upon release, The Suburbs debuted at No. 1 in Ireland, the UK, the US and Canada. Later it won Best International Album at the BRIT Awards, Album of the Year at the Juno Awards, and the Polaris Music Prize. Most impressively, and shockingly, Arcade Fire triumphed over Eminem, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Lady Antebellum at the 53rd Annual Grammy Awards, becoming the first indie band to win Album of the Year.
Per frontman Win Butler:
[The Suburbs] is neither a love letter to, nor an indictment of, the suburbs – it’s a letter from the suburbs.
The Suburbs is inspired by his upbringing, with brother/bandmate Will, in The Woodlands, a suburb of Houston, Texas. Prior to its release Win described the album as a Depeche Mode/Neil Young hybrid, wanting it to sound like the bands of his youth. The jury is out on whether the album sounds exactly like this combination, but the influence of Americana, Heartland rock and new wave on the album’s sound is undeniable. It’s clear from Butler’s revelations that Arcade Fire recorded The Suburbs with nostalgia at the core.
The album’s artwork hints at the themes therein. Eight versions of the album cover were created and released, each depicting a suburban home with a front facing car parked outside. This suggests the perspective of the album’s narrator, with the suburb visible only in the background or in the car’s rear-view mirror. This latter view is a reflection, as is the album – a reflection on the narrator’s youth.
The album was also the inspiration for a Spike Jonze directed short film, Scenes from The Suburbs. Filmed in collaboration with the band, the movie is told from the perspective of a suburban teenager. He reflects on his time in a suburban community on military lockdown, and the breakdown of his relationship with his best friend. Clips from the short were used to create the music video for the album’s opening title track, ‘The Suburbs’.
On this song, many of the album and short film’s major themes are introduced. The misery and concealed anxieties of life in suburbia are exposed, alongside themes of war, youth, and loss of innocence. The song opens with jaunty keys, a steady drumbeat and a plodding bassline. In the first verse, Butler sings:
You always seemed so sure
That one day we’d be fighting in a suburban war
Your part of town against mine
I saw you standing on the opposite shore
Here we are introduced to the relationship between the narrator and his best friend, who is so anxious about the effects of growing up in this setting that they will eventually fight over it, foreshadowing the disintegration of their friendship.
The song’s chorus introduces the recurring motif of “the feeling”. Though ambiguous, it seems to suggest the feeling of the place you grew up being unlike any other. However, upon revisiting it, those feelings are gone. In their place, a juxtaposition – the feeling of being trapped by one’s nostalgia while also being liberated by having left that place behind.
The song’s next verse discusses how children are in too much of a hurry to grow up, while the narrator yearns for a simpler time:
The kids want to be so hard
But in my dreams, we’re still screaming
And running through the yard
Kids want to be tough, to prove their maturity and strength but the innocence and carelessness of youth are the memories that stick. Butler goes on to describe how the suburban homes built during his childhood have all collapsed or been destroyed. All he has left of his old environment are his memories.
In a deviation from the previous chorus, our narrator is now “moving past the feeling and into the night” – the darkness, the unknown. How he should deal with his past or future is unclear. All the while, strings swell to the fore, adding tension and drama, reflecting the multitude of emotions brought up in the narrator’s reflection on his past.
On the final verse, Butler expresses his wish to have a child – specifically a daughter – while he still remembers what it’s like to be a child himself. He wishes to pass on his appreciation of the place he grew up in to someone open-minded – his child. He also wants to do this before the place becomes unrecognisable, and before the cruelty of adulthood corrupts him too much. Ultimately, however, he knows this is out of his hands.
But if it’s too much to ask, if it’s too much to ask
Then send me a son
The strings and spiralling guitar leads become more prominent against the steady hum-drum beat, building to a climax which sees the narrator dream of his gang of friends “still screaming” in his dreams. He and his friends are still at war, still trying to escape their mundane reality.
‘The Suburbs’ bleeds into straight-ahead rocker ‘Ready to Start’, a song relatable to anybody who has joined the rat race. It can be seen as a rallying cry to those wishing to shirk corporate servitude, a declaration of independence, and a tribute to those from the suburbs who dreamed big. Almost predictive of the band’s own breakthrough, Butler sings:
And I guess I’ll just begin again
You say, “Can we still be friends?”
These two lines alone reference the band’s DIY ethic, the networks they have built over the years which they strive to keep intact, and an inner clash between financial success while being true to oneself and maintaining the respect of one’s peers.
On ‘Modern Man’, Butler sings earnestly over a skipping, broken record-like rhythm. Here, he contrasts the cushy lifestyle modern consumer culture brings with what the narrator wishes to express from within. While the narrator is content to “wait in line”, he concedes that “something don’t feel right”. There is an existential anxiety – is this all there is?
‘Rococo’ examines conformism in modern youth. People use “great big words that they don’t understand”, like “rococo”, to seem cultured. The Rococo movement in art was often criticised for being an era in which wealthy French citizens purchased art frivolously, without any consideration for taste or culture. This parallels neatly with the idea the narrator is criticising.
Régine Chassagne takes over lead vocal duties on ‘Empty Room’, singing a song of loneliness and isolation, which juxtaposes the pain of being alone with the freedom and lack of pressure to conform that this brings. Next, ‘City with No Children’ draws on the established themes of youth and adulthood, as well as Win and Will Butler’s Mormon upbringing, serving as a metaphor for a city with the life sucked out of it. The narrator dreams of a return to the Houston suburb of his childhood.
There was no light that we could see
As we listened to the sound of the engine failing
No matter how much he wants to reclaim his youth, he can’t. He also sings of the soulless effects of gentrification.
A garden left for ruin by a millionaire inside
Of a private prison
The narrator imbues Biblical imagery to ponder his own position on the second verse.
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
The Sermon on the Mount is a lesson in humility, a hypocritical reference coming from a millionaire. Here the narrator reflects on his own success and wealth, and questions his authority as a critic of those before him.
‘Half Light I’ and ‘Half Light II’ serve as the album’s centrepiece. The former is a gorgeous, string-laden ballad full of imagery exploring suburbia at night and the notion of growing up. The half-light here represents that time between childhood and adulthood and the idea of revisiting the suburbs only to see it in a different light.
Strange how the half light
Can make a place new
‘Half Light II’ continues this theme in louder, more grandiose fashion, exploring the pain of leaving one’s childhood home.
Though we knew this day would come
Still it took us by surprise
In this town where I was born
I now see through a dead man’s eyes
We all grow up and leave home but it doesn’t make it any less shocking when it happens. The narrator doesn’t recognise his hometown, but only because he has changed himself.
This gives way to key track ‘Suburban War’. Opening with mournful guitar arpeggios, the song centres on the narrator’s once best friend and how they grew apart. He describes driving around the suburb, commenting on its banality but also how good friendships in one’s youth make these things bearable (“there’s nothing to do but I don’t mind when I’m with you”). His friend would grow resentful of his surroundings, urging for the pair to make their escape (“You said the past won’t rest / Until we jump the fence and leave it behind”).
In the length of their hair, we have a symbol for the characters’ friendship. At first, the narrator’s friend “grew [his] hair so I grew mine”, but later he “cut [his] hair, I never saw [him] again”. The song features a chilling call back to the opening title track.
In the suburbs I, I learned to drive
And you told me we would never survive
So grab your mother’s keys we leave tonight
As the two begin entering the half-lit world of adulthood, one is fearful of the incumbent nether-world and fears what might become of them and their friendship. The narrator, however, is trying to face those fears and explore.
Next is ‘Month of May’, an urgent, driving rock song and, arguably, the most rock ‘n’ roll song in the band’s repertoire. Defiant, the song depicts kids with crossed arms, cynically rejecting the world around them, something the narrator feels is ineffective.
Well, I know it’s heavy, I know it ain’t light
But how you gonna lift it with your arms folded tight?
Later, ‘Deep Blue’ describes a post-apocalyptic view of human creativity and increasing automation over a wash of synths. Following this, ‘We Used to Wait’ is a piano-led dirge, lamenting technological advances taking away the purity of the suburbs, something the narrator has had to accept. This leads us further toward the climax of the album.
‘Sprawl I’ by its very name is a reflection on the concept of both the suburban and urban sprawl – the expansion of the population from the city into low-mass, single-purpose, commuter towns and villages. Right from the opening verse the song calls back to themes already introduced:
Took a drive into the sprawl
To find the house where we used to stay
We couldn’t read the number in the dark
You said “let’s save it for another day”
The narrator revisits his old hometown but can’t pick out his own house. The significance of the word “stay” as opposed to “live” indicates his own discomfort in his surroundings upon revisiting. The darkness again alludes to the uncertain, contrasting with the light of being a child. His travel companion, unmoved, makes a passive remark.
He continues his drive “through these towns they built to change”. One line, however, sums up the downbeat track:
Then you said the emotions are dead
The “feeling” alluded to throughout the album, beginning with the title track, is gone. The narrator has moved past it, and so the obliteration of the suburbs reflects his youth in his own mind – falling to pieces. His nostalgia has led him to realise that things have changed and he’ll never get it back.
‘Sprawl II’ is a pulsing, new wave-inspired track, boasting a melody comparable to Blondie’s ‘Heart of Glass’. Another Chassagne-led track, its opening verse follows a character advised to give up on their dreams and embrace the average workday, but those dreams are set free at night. As with the rest of the album, there is a definite dichotomy between art vs. work, day vs. night. The song’s refrain epitomises what the narrator has finally come to realise. In terms of his own development, the suburb is an obstacle.
Dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains
And there’s no end in sight
I need the darkness, someone please cut the lights
Where the dark was a mark of uncertainty before, it is now something to yearn for. In the context of ‘Sprawl II’, it’s a place where this narrator can allow their pretentious dreams to take flight. In the wider context of the album, it’s time to grow up and move on, and the dark is something to embrace.
Finally, the album ends with a reprise of the opening track. A brief, thought-provoking closing statement on the themes of youth, reflection and maturity that pump through the album’s veins. Here, the narrator realises that as much as they reject the time they spent in the suburb, if given half a chance they would only do it again. Ultimately, however, he “forgot to ask” for that time back.
The Suburbs succeeds as a musically realised coming-of-age film thanks to its unconscious use of tropes from the genre. We have a relatable protagonist who seeks to define himself, a setting that we don’t personally know but recognise as if we do, retro sounds evoking feelings of nostalgia, a gang of youths as a source of fraternity but also conflict, loss of the innocence of youth in the form of dissolution of a close friendship and burgeoning adulthood, and an ending that takes one final look back at the past, only to acknowledge that the narrator would not have done it any differently.