We want to have homes, drive cars, raise children, love without hurting ourselves or one another. We want to fall over our feet and wipe our noses in public and yet still be loved, loved like a kitchen table or a big sweater and not like a glossy photo taken at the right angle. The Suburbs perhaps even more than Arcade Fire’s previous albums takes on this defiant, guilty longing for exactly the kind of simple existence from rock ‘n’ roll was traditionally supposed to free its youthful, angry audience. In the opening song on the album, lead singer Win Butler talks about his desire to have a daughter while he’s still young, “hold her hand, show her some beauty before it’s all gone.” Rock ‘n’ roll was supposed to be the music Dad couldn’t understand. Now it’s being sung by Dad, about being Dad.
If this is the case (and you should read the whole essay, it’s interesting) then perhaps it explains why I don’t think much of the album. Because as a description of being Dad it really sucks, worse even than a description of being not-Dad. As an aspiration of being Dad maybe it works, but anyone aspiring to Dadness on the terms above has got a few nasty surprises in store. The “love without hurting” stuff is poppycock for a start.
This relates to something that was lurking behind the Guardian column I wrote last week, about “grown-upness” in music, which contrasted the Arcade Fire with old disco records. I located grown-up-ness in disco’s mix of the goofy with the sophisticated, and the way it seemed able to switch between them without getting self-conscious about either. These ideas about disco were based on half-remembered and mangled Chuck Eddy pieces, but also on my own experience (such as it is) of ‘being grown-up’, which is of having to switch between sophistication and goofiness on a very regular basis. I am Dad, which is to say I am the person who makes up raps about Batman fighting a light monster and a boat monster on demand every night, and the person who pretends to know about social media in order to pay the mortgage, and the person who agonises and frets endlessly about his continued ability to do the mortgage stuff AND the Batman rapping stuff. And that’s even before I start thinking about how much I’m still the person I was before I was Dad.
Now, I’m not saying being a parent makes you more mature than not being a parent. If nothing else it would be borderline offensive to claim some kind of magic breeder wisdom when making an argument about disco! But also I’m probably less mature - less smart, less well-read, less up-to-date, less coherent than I was five years ago because I have a lot less time and get a lot less sleep.
But being a parent does inescapably make you into a grown-up - as in, you are perceived to BE a grown-up by one or more other human beings, in fact you are the very definition of grown-up-dom no matter how much of a fuck-up you subjectively feel yourself to be or how little you care about the role. Assuming you’re planning to play some part in your kid’s life you are Grown-Up to them. And that Grown-Up is what eventually becomes the Dad this essay is talking about. Which is to say, a concept of Dadness, a symbol of Dadness which has nothing really at all to do with the actual experience of Dadness.
(So you have a symbolic suburbs standing in for a symbolic Dadness which is bundled up in the symbology of Nostalgia, blah blah blah - is it really any wonder I find this record a bit hollow? Lady Gaga - her AGAIN! - I can get with, she’s into dressing up and she goes “La-la-a-ha-ha” which is sort of what you might do if forced to extemporise in the middle of a Batman rap.)
So many wonderful angles from which to detest the Arcade Fire.
I’ll tell you one thing being a dad does help with: putting rock reviews and criticism into perspective (i.e. who cares).