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Ready to Start
“I thought the goal of making a record was to document something worth remembering. So why name your album something as boring as The Suburbs?” I looked up from my issue of Q Magazine to stare blankly at the plane seat in front of me as I pondered this question. Realizing that the seat would not have anything constructive to say about this sort of topic, I quickly averted my gaze to the window. The fields of the English countryside whizzed past in a torrent of green and brown as the plane began its descent. I simultaneously shoved the magazine into my backpack and the issue out of my mind, ready to enjoy a few weeks’ break from the monotony of my hometown. A vacation in a city like London, no less! With its incredible alternative scene, London represented a safe haven for those invested in listening to top-notch music. Being a person who refers to members of rock bands by their first names as if they are close family friends, visiting a city like London meant returning to my long-lost hometown.
The Suburbs. Nothing about the name stimulated me, yet the Canadian indie rock juggernaut that is Arcade Fire had released its third full-length record to the world under this dull moniker. For a title so seemingly forgettable, the album proved inescapable during my week in London. Stacks of music magazines at a convenience store would be emblazoned with Arcade Fire cover stories. A simple tube trip meant passing at least three posters displaying the cover art. Even billboards would feature that image of a car parked in front of a nondescript brick house, the words “Arcade Fire presents The Suburbs” bold amidst the muted neutrals. Those familiar with the indie rock scene will not be surprised by this amount of publicity – the fact that Arcade Fire is so well-respected by fans and critics alike made the release of this album An Extremely Big Deal. Familiar as I was, I still firmly believed that substituting the word “Annoying” for “Big” would be more apt. I checked the view from my hotel window every morning to confirm that Big Ben was, indeed, still standing, and had not transformed itself into that commonplace brick house overnight.
Heathrow Airport was, so to speak, the straw that broke the camel’s back. On the way to catch our flight to Paris, I blinked emotionlessly for a few seconds when I encountered the airport’s CD shop. Five full rows of that car and that house, cloned and ready for consumption, taunted me upon entering. The fight-or-flight mechanism kicked in, and I marched straight into the flames, snatching a copy from the top row. I vaguely heard the cashier complimenting me on my taste in music after I slammed the CD down on the front desk. I suppose I had to crack a smile after the textbook example of colloquial English dialect, “Brilliant album! Only ten quid, too.”
Paris gave me my first opportunity to experience the record. Waiting for the rest of my family to embark on a day of touring, I slouched somewhat comfortably in a wire chair in the hotel lobby. It was the sort of chair that had been added as an afterthought, as if the interior designers had said to themselves, “Maybe someone would want to sit here! In the lobby! Fancy that! Probably a rare occurrence, though, so let’s go bargain hunting at Ikea.” I chuckled to myself at the thought, momentarily curbing my boredom. The monotony of the pouring rain diverted my attention, creating a violent din as the water fell relentlessly on the stones in the hotel courtyard. I wasn’t even able to observe the behavior of individual droplets – it was the type of rain that formed a wall, barricading feeble humans from the outside world. Slightly intimidated by such a personification, I fumbled around my pockets for my iPod to block out the noise.
Scrolling through the albums, those familiar two words appeared in Arial font. The Suburbs. Why not. My thumb made contact with the words.
The first chord swept me away into the tide. Lilting piano chords with bass and a straight drumbeat flowed effortlessly through my headphones in a progression that naturally complemented the rain outside. The water took form, droplets falling onto the trees in patterns that could only make sense in conjunction with this particular soundscape. Such a simple four-chord melody, yet so effortlessly stunning. An unknown memory rather than a revelation.
Vocals soon cascaded into the mix, a new instrument as opposed to a necessary ingredient for an accessible record. In the suburbs I, I learned to drive…
The glass door separating me from the falling rain soon became the windshield of that familiar car, wheels turning, landscape blurring, rain drumming in 4/4 time to the rhythm. Sometimes I can’t believe it, I’m moving past the feeling.
The words evoked vivid memories - all those hours scrawling hurried journal entries to myself, small aphorisms to document my thought processes as a high school sophomore. The present is transitory, I had written time and time again. We don’t live in the moment, but rather move past the blurred collection. Movement…
High school limbo seemed tolerable when taking this into account. The constraint of walking the halls. Not that I wasn’t socially accepted – I had found a group of people I enjoyed – but isolation often overwhelmed me. Respected and acknowledged, yet far from understood.
April. Soggy mid-afternoon. “Northeastern,” my friend Ashley had declared when the topic of conversation rolled around to colleges. “That’s where I want to go.”
“No hesitation there!” I quipped in return.
“Well, it’s perfect, isn’t it?” She paused to collect her thoughts. “My sister goes there and it’s close to home.” Another pause. “Where else would I go?”
That word proved incredibly puzzling. “Elsewhere?” Ashley tasted the word and wanted to spit it out, a grimace reflecting her thoughts.
I chuckled. “You know, maybe somewhere out of state? It’ll be your chance to see the world beyond Concord and Boston. Think about it – you could go anywhere!” My eyes widened as I saw the horizon stretching out in front of me, airplanes taking off and landing somewhere exotic. “You know….the world of not Massachusetts.”
Ashley’s head tilted to a 45-degree angle. Squinted eyes indicated I hadn’t quite broken through.
“Well, I dunno, maybe it’s just me then,” I quickly backtracked. It can’t just be me, can it? “I mean, Boston’s great, I like it here.”
“Yeah! Exactly! Why leave when everything’s so great here?” Ashley’s usual smile returned as she considered everything she loved about the Boston area.
“Right, right,” I agreed half-heartedly.
Now I’m ready to start, you’re not sure. The album drifted onwards, the lyrics quickly becoming the perceptive friend I never had. Now you’re knocking at my door saying: “Please come out with us tonight.” But I would rather be alone than pretend I feel all right.
A cold shudder of recognition shifted me in my suddenly uncomfortable chair. I thought I had erased all those memories in the aftermath. Then again, when a portable disaster of a social life shapes someone’s freshman year of high school, nothing is entirely forgotten. Blurred, patchy snapshots popped and fizzed in my head, not quite taking any linear form. Surrounded by people, but always alone. Gradually becoming aware that my life was taking a different path than those of my friends. Steadily becoming unable to recognize my real friends. Lack of communication. Lack of enjoyment spending time together. Friends don’t ignore each other quite like this, do they? Leaving the lunch table in a haze of fury and confusion. Earphones in, world out.
“My friends dropped me in high school” is likely one of the most prevalent clichés one can ever encounter, but this doesn’t lessen the impact of the emotions involved. I couldn’t face the memories again – I’ve never been one to dwell extensively on the past. Always focusing on the future. Everything else is transport. Besides, my story had a happy ending. Sophomore year ushered new people into my life - uncomplicated, easygoing friendships. A refreshing change from what I was used to. A smile crept across my face when I remembered a few inside jokes of ours, tapping my foot as my attention drifted back to The Suburbs. I fell into a musical trance as the record progressed, curling up inside these sound waves that understood me so well.
Rhythmic acoustic guitar chords opened “Wasted Hours,” the eleventh track on the album. A shot of adrenaline rushed through me as I realized this number was in the double digits. Had ten songs finished already? Paying attention to running time seemed irrelevant - the album progressed as one musical thought with many movements instead of a collection of sixteen songs. The guitar lulled me back into my trance as the rain continued out the window. Wishing you were anywhere but here, you watch the life you’re living disappear. And now I see, we’re still kids in buses longing to be free.
I began to nod my agreement, easily identifying with the notion. Mature enough to feel trapped by the stagnant nature of life in the sleepy suburbs, but still too young to break out and see the world. Wanting more from a monotonous cycle of life – wake up, eat, go to school, go home, do homework, eat again, do more homework, sleep, repeat – but unable to actually do anything that might change the system. I finally understood that I wasn’t alone in feeling this way. This record filled a void. Rather than feeding teenage angst, they symbolized movement, even hope. Beyond my small town, my suburban prison, people like me actually existed. My desperation to escape the constraints of the suburbs was no longer uniquely my own struggle.
Waiting out the time is easier said than done, but soon enough, this limbo would be a trivial memory. “The transitory present,” I reminded myself out loud. There was too much to look forward to beyond the borders of the suburbs. The future, the unknown, the not Massachusetts all lay before me.
Here, in my place and time, and here in my own skin, I can finally begin.