I’ve been slowly working my way into the newish Arcade Fire album, “The Suburbs,” and every listen is a process of what you might call letting go. That heavy thematic foreground – um, suburbs? Are you really going to talk about the evils of suburbs for a whole album? – is a problem for somebody who, though not very fond of suburbs as a place to live or get stuck in traffic in, genuinely loathes suburbia as a target of satire and smug critical harangues. I also suspect that my loathing of the the critical trope “suburbia” has become so widely shared (I mean, everyone hates American Beauty by now, right?) as to have emerged as a tired counterpart to the suburbia trope itself – which doesn’t let Arcade Fire off the hook; it just means the topic is so overworked that saying it’s overworked is also overworked.
So it speaks to Arcade Fire’s defining charms that they can tread into these barren fields and make you think they’ve discovered something to sing about. Their sensitive-ten-year-old approach is a sort of challenge – to make yourself un-jaded enough to bewail the suburbs all over again. And since they traffic more in sorrow than in smugness, and since they’re quite good at translating their naive disappointment into a sort of churchy beauty, they do force you to drop your sophistication and resistance and get a little sad for a while about the things they’re sad about, the suburbs or, on their previous album, the war. Arcade Fire creates muscular, lovely, and often majestic pop music precisely because their animating passions are so simplistic, so close to the heart and so far from the brain.
So this is the musical force working on me, tugging on my jacket, cajoling me in the voice of a ten-year-old boy – “Hey, mister…Hey, mister…” – to let go of my suspicion that these renaissancy Quebecers are trying to teach me a lesson I haven’t needed to be taught for a long time, as I reach the sixth track on Suburbs, “City With No Children”. The Arcade Fire spell is working. I’m letting go. I’m sitting in their hipster church, suspending disbelief. And then this verse comes along:
When you’re hiding underground
The rain can’t get you wet
But do you think your righteousness could pay the interest on your debt?
I have my doubts about it
There was a really terrible band in the 90s called Live, and this verse is pretty much exactly how that band was terrible. The last line, especially, mimics Live’s method for being terrible. (I can see the little shaven-haired lead singer for Live strutting around the stage with his hands on his hips and slowly shaking his head like Aretha Franklin as he answers his rhetorical question about the patently dubious thing any decent person would have doubts about by saying oh yes, I have my doubts about it, let there be no mistake about that.) But the second-last line, that rhetorical question, is the real buzzkill, the real spell-lifter. It’s hard to describe how bad this line sounds as sung. The rousing, anthemy set-up of the song, complete with hand-claps, prepares you to experience the terribleness not just as incidental but as definitive, as the climactic appearance of a hidden essence. When Win Butler tries to sneak the five syllables of “righteousness could pay” into a space where four syllables (and preferably four entirely different syllables) should to go, my heart sinks, every time. He’s obviously really committed to that awful debt metaphor, and he really wants to stuff the unsightly flab of that word “righteousness” into that tight spot, so there’s no explaining it away. He really means to say “righteousness could pay.” He really wants to pull off that unfortunate metaphor. And if the mangled meter isn’t enough to establish the seriousness of his commitment to whatever the hell these words are supposed to mean, he goes and answers the dumb rhetorical question that contains his bad metaphor. In that moment, I realize that my allegiance to Arcade Fire has been a fragile construct built on a combination of anxiety that they had it in them to say such a thing and relief that they had miraculously avoided saying it so far. But now that they’ve said it, so doggedly, so willfully, I can’t help thinking it’s what they’ve been trying to say all along.