on "The Suburbs (Continued)"

October 14, 2020
The other week I posted lyrics to Arcade Fire's "The Suburbs (Continued)". For some reason I wanted to take a deeper dive at deconstructing it. (Sort of a throw back to my English major University days, though maybe more subjectively than I was allowed to then! I once did a ten page paper on a 3 line poem.)

Acoustically the song starts by painting a broad soft landscape, gently sorrowful in tone, and taking up a full third of this song which is kind of a reprise of a longer piece.

The first lyrics start continuing the wistful tone set by the orchestration:

If I could have it back
All the time that we wasted


...An impossible wish for having time again. The album this track is from (and that shares a name with it) has a strong apocalyptic theme. So the loss could be somewhere between the personal and the larger community scale - and maybe with a fear that people should have done more preparation when there was the chance.

I'd only waste it again

One thinks of the Tallulah Bankhead line "If I had to live my life again, I'd make the same mistakes, only sooner" and similar expressions that can almost challenge the idea of free will - if we were the same person we were then, and in the same situation, of course we'd take the same actions and make the same mistakes.

But then:

If I could have it back
You know I would love to waste it again


A female voice joins in on the second line of this phrase - suddenly the "we" of the second line of the song (in a piece otherwise in the singular) gains a new depth. Not only do these lines mark a switch from the regretful to the wistful, but there is a shared sense of connection, a shared past.

Waste it again and again and again

A lovely mechanic of repetition here that mirrors the way time is 'wasted', especially with someone: over a series of repeated days, weeks, months.

What is the context of the song? There's a strong sense of loss here, whether it's in the apocalyptic story of the larger album or merely a failed relationship. (And for me it hits home - I'm at peace with my life, and not having made a traditional family, but I think for many there can be a sense of lost opportunity and wasted young adulthood.)

Well, I've got to ask

This is the only spoken line in the song. Who is the narrator asking? A divine figure who might be able to grant his wish to have the time back? Or maybe it's a hopeless plea to the other half of the "we" of the song, to rekindle a broken relationship. Wistful and resigned either way.

The song then continues with further repetition:

Sometimes I can't believe it
I'm moving past the feeling again
Sometimes I can't believe it
I'm moving past the feeling again
Sometimes I can't believe it
I'm moving past the feeling again
Sometimes I can't


The repetitions alternate between the main singer and the second voice until fade out. Are both parties surprised at their success in moving on? But the "again" in the line, along with the repetition of the lines themselves, points to it not being a steady sense of increasing equanimity - so is the surprise at just having the ability to move on, or at realizing the backsliding into feeling has happened again?

The song ends with a fade out - so it's ambiguous what the truly final line is, but "Sometimes I can't" works well, and ties into the confusion about if the singers have moved on or not.

This is an amazing 1:30 of music.
Life Lessons Learned in My 40's That I Wish I Could Tell My 20-Year Old Self. Well-trod territory but good.