Arcade Fire’s third album The Suburbs is in a long, glorious tradition of pop lyricism inspired by everyday life, writes Christopher Howse
Arcade Fire’s first album Funeral was not about a funeral. But, goodness, when we saw Régine Chassagne hammering away at her keyboard in red elbow-gloves with her husband Win Butler singing one of its tracks, ‘Power Out’, on Jools Holland’s show in 2005, we sat up and knew something had changed.
Funeral was, in part, about the suburbs. Arcade Fire’s third album, The Suburbs, out this week, continues the interpretation of city life from the viewpoint of the ‘kids’, with particular reference to parents, and disaster. Not that the kids get off without criticism. Funeral warned them that if they don’t grow up, ‘our bodies get bigger, but our hearts get torn up. We’re just a million little gods.’ In The Suburbs, ‘they seem wild, but they are so tame’ and they’re ‘using great big words they don’t understand’.
The Suburbs has not lost the lyrical accomplishment that characterised Funeral. There was something of the Metaphysicals about Funeral, with couplets like: ‘You turn all the lead sleeping in my head to gold./ As the day grows dim I hear you sing a golden hymn.’ In The Suburbs there is a touch of Blake: ‘Oh, this city’s changed so much/ Since I was a little child;/ Pray to God I won’t live to see/ The death of everything that’s wild.’
Heaven save us from Ricksian pretension. This is not Keats. And for every listener who hates gangsta stupidity and booty-shaking, there is no doubt a practitioner of the higher snobbism who despises indie college kids singing of ashes and the grim reaper. But at least the eschatological yearnings of Arcade Fire begin in daily life even as they reach out for something transcendental. William Morris suggested the ultramundane by the very title of his books: The Wood Beyond the World or The Roots of the Mountains. In The Suburbs, Arcade Fire sing that, ‘Living in the sprawl/ Dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains.’
This is very different from the conventional treatment of urban life in the last four decades of British rock music, which has belittled the suburbs and glorified the grittiness of the inner city. Paul Weller did both at the same time in ‘That’s Entertainment’ (1980): ‘A hot summer’s day and sticky black tarmac./ Feeding ducks in the park and wishing you were far away.’ At the same period, The Clash looked forward to revolution, after the Notting Hill Carnival of 1976 had ended in a small riot. Their response possessed more energy than lyrical subtlety: ‘White, riot, I want a riot./ White riot, a riot of my own.’
It took a humorist to subvert the po-faced pretensions of punk poets, when in 1978 Jilted John (Graham Fellows) produced a world of dramatic irony in a single stanza: ‘I was so upset that I cried,/ All the way to the chip shop./ When I came out there was Gordon,/ Standing at the bus stop.’ If that doesn’t express the rawness of jealous love in the idiom of suburban youth, I don’t know what does.
In the same year Ian Dury’s album New Boots and Panties used deftly controlled lyrics to give the precise flavour of a place, a time and a social role. Billericay is an Essex town 34 minutes from Liverpool Street station. In the character of Billericay Dickie, Ian Dury launched lustily into his crochet of rhymes: ‘Had a love affair with Nina/ In the back of my Cortina./ A seasoned up hyena/ Could not have been more obscener./ She took me to the cleaners,/ And other misdemeanours./ But I got right up between her/ Rum and her Ribena.’ The attitude might have made the neo-Mod Weller or The Clash’s right-on lefty Joe Strummer blush. But Ian Dury had the edge in lyric inventiveness. The words mattered.
A decade later, after the sad trough of the 1980s, Blur signalled that suburban life was due for a good dose of satire. The trouble was that in Modern Life Is Rubbish (1993) and Parklife (1994) it was unclear who was supposed to laugh at whom. ‘I get up when I want except on Wednesdays when I get rudely awakened by the dustmen,’ says the narrator of the title track ‘Parklife’. Jarvis Cocker of Pulp criticised ‘Parklife’ for ‘patronising social voyeurism’, though his own ‘Common People’ (1995), for all its verbal fluency, is hardly loaded with direct insight into the daily life of the poor.
At least Blur, knowingly neo-neo-Mod, was not Oasis, who on first hearing sounded like some bootleg Beatles tapes retrieved from John Lennon’s grave. The importance of the words in Oasis hits (think of ‘Wonderwall’, 1995, or ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’, 1996) was nugatory. Whether Sally waited or not was of no interest whatsoever. In an unknowingly satirical own-goal by Tony Blair, Noel Gallagher was invited to Downing Street on the crest of the Cool Britannia wave. ‘He said he thought Number 10 was “tops”,’ Alastair Campbell recorded in his curiously dead-voiced diaries. ‘Said he couldn’t believe that there was an ironing board in there.’
No, well, some things are easier to believe than others, such as that Gordon Brown from his own experience found that ‘the Arctic Monkeys really wake you up in the morning’. If he listened to the lyrics of ‘When the Sun Goes Down’ (2006), he’d have heard a poig-nant tale of an exploited prostitute, which even featured Mondeo Man.
That undoubtedly falls on the gritty side of the suburb/inner-city divide. Sheffield is unlikely to adopt it as a municipal anthem. But when it came to embodying the mores of young urban chav-life in dramatic monologue, The Streets, in the person of Mike Skinner (who once gave his background as ‘suburban estates, not poor but not much money about, really boring’) had already made a passable job of it with ‘Fit But You Know It’ (2004). ‘I was waiting in the queue looking at the board,’ the narrator explains, ‘Wondering whether to have a burger or chips/ Or what the shrapnel in my back pocket could afford/ When I noticed out the corner of my eye, looking toward/ My direction, your eyes locked onto my course./ I couldn’t concentrate on what I wanted to order.’
From there it is only a step to the ingenious but unmistakeably parodic ‘Newport (Ymerodraeth State of Mind)’, which replaces the New York references in the song by Jay Z and Alicia Keys, ‘Empire State of Mind’, with lyrics sung by Alex Warren cataloguing the attractions of Newport, Monmouthshire, and its famous transporter bridge. ‘If you come and visit use the Designated Parking Zones./ There’s a snooker hall, see, but I’m not a member,/ And a lovely shopping centre, opened in December./ So head over the water/ On the Transporter.’ The accompanying video has been viewed by billions of people on YouTube over the past month.
Parody is a default convention of British popular culture at the moment. Arcade Fire neither laughs at itself nor takes itself seriously, and its lyrics say more about the suburbs than declarative prose can. That is called poetry, and it is nothing to be ashamed about.
Christopher Howse is an assistant editor of the Daily Telegraph.