The three distinctive features of present-nostalgia, introduced here, come into greater relief when Butler’s ‘kids’ and ‘modern man’ are compared to those of Bob Dylan and Walt Whitman. Whitman’s ‘modern man’ is a song to be sung and future anticipated, while Dylan’s ‘kids’ strive to claim the future as their own. However, the tension between ‘kids’ and ‘modern man’ in Butler’s lyrics, and present-nostalgia more generally, can be read through the social theory of Charles Taylor as an attempt to secure authentic selfhood and construct meaning out of fragments of the past. Taylor can help us know whether the longing for a near-past is a matter of growing up too fast, or not growing up at all.
‘Two-Thousand Nine, Two-Thousand Ten Gonna Make a Record How I Felt Then’ Month of May
Eulogizing the simplicity and innocence of a near past that has become complex and tainted by adulthood, responsibility and economics, The Suburbs builds on themes introduced in Funeral and Neon Bible. In many cases the temporal gap between the present and the past event being eulogised is narrow. This is seen in the recurrence of the childhood home as a site of (in)security and drama across all three Arcade Fire albums.
The home is undeniably a significant cultural site, however traditionally ‘rock and roll’ as been more about leaving home for a new world rather than continually recalling its complexity. At the time Funeral was released Butler was twenty four, yet the album is imbued with mixed ‘homesickness’ for a home that could still be seen, and perhaps was still being lived in.
In The Suburbs ‘City With No Children’ Butler intones the return home, ‘Dreamed I drove home to Houston’, however the journey is interrupted by a failing engine and collapsing tunnel. In ‘Sprawl I’ Butler reinforces this longing for the childhood home when he mournfully sings ‘Took a drive into the sprawl to find the house where we use to stay’. But again the attempt of return is interrupted when they ‘Couldn’t read the number in the dark You said let’s save it for another day’.
This longing for the childhood home is powerfully established in the interactive film-clip The Wilderness Downtown. This film speaks of over-indulgence as much as it does genius. Asking the viewer to submit the street address of their childhood home the viewer is taken on a journey through their old suburb with a jogger and Arcade Fire as guides. While Butler sings ‘now our lives are changing fast, hope that something pure can last’ Google Street View takes the viewer through the streets of their childhood suburb incorporating it in the film; at the crescendo the childhood home takes centre stage. Clearly this film demonstrates Chris Milk’s creative ability, but it is also evidences of desire for the everyday of not-too-distant past and a narcissistic celebration in middle-class mediocrity.
The home is certainly not absent from earlier forms of popular music, but it plays a different role as source of identity and future direction.