The album may or may not be obsolete, but the fact remains: People have long obsessed over individual songs. The Single File is The A.V. Club’s look at the deep cuts, detours, experiments, and anthems that make us reach for replay.
Last year the Arcade Fire broke up rock’s hate affair with the suburbs by releasing The Suburbs, an album that refused to simply bag on the ’burbs and be done with it. Instead, frontman Win Butler had to get all nuanced. The disc portrays the planned community of Butler’s youth—specifically The Woodlands, just outside Houston—as a neutral, mutable backdrop that he shaped as much as it shaped him. Used up and left behind, that materia prima still exerts a gravitational pull, even though it exists now, at least to Butler, as more of a psychic construct than a civic one.
It’s safe to assume that Butler’s probing of his adolescence was partly the result of getting older. He was 30 when The Suburbs came out, an age when it’s only natural to look back and ponder who the hell you are and what the hell made you that person. If you’re lucky, you may have even learned to pleasantly tolerate that person’s company. If not, well, you can always shunt the blame elsewhere. For instance, the suburbs.
Drummer-lyricist Neil Peart turned 30 in 1982, the year his group Rush released Signals. It was a departure, even for a progressive-rock trio that specialized in departures. While the album’s predecessor, the masterful Moving Pictures, dabbled in new-wave synthesizers, it still bore Rush’s prog pedigree: lush structures, science-fiction tropes, 11-minute songs. But Signals is Moving Pictures reduced to Morse code. Echoing and stark, it marked a new direction for Rush. There’s a subtler paradigm shift to Signals, though, that’s no less striking: It’s on the song “Subdivisions,” in which Peart takes his eyes off the cosmos and gazes backward at his childhood in the Ontario suburb of Port Dalhousie. Unlike Butler, Peart doesn’t bother with emotional nuance. He calls it like he sees it: The suburbs fucking suck.
Peart puts a finer point on his hate than that, but it’s no less potent for its eloquence. Filtered through bassist-keyboardist Geddy Lee’s rarified warble, Peart’s lyrics take on a distant, almost abstract tone. “Sprawling on the fringes of the city / In geometric order,” Lee sings over Peart’s appropriately geometric beat. “Growing up it all seems so one-sided / Opinions all provided / The future pre-decided / Detached and subdivided.” As the song chugs along with mechanistic grace—guitarist Alex Lifeson, Rush’s most organic component, is barely audible—Lee reveals the source of Peart’s icy reserve: “In the basement bars / In the backs of cars / Be cool or be cast out.” Peart had long hidden behind brainy concepts, intricate wordplay, and algebraic polyrhythms. Even his massive, elaborate drum kit seems like a suit of onstage armor. Yet here he is, penning the tale of a sensitive boy smothered by the suburbs: “In the mass production zone / Nowhere is the dreamer or the misfit so alone.” That misfit, of course, is him.
Granted, Peart had previously tinkered with semi-autobiography, most notably in the Moving Pictures hit “Limelight,” an examination of how being thrust into the public eye can change the way you see yourself—and how barriers between people can sometimes be not only healthy, but essential to survival. Peart’s attraction to individualism has never been a secret—at least not since he dedicated Rush’s 1976 breakthrough, 2112, to the arch-individualist Ayn Rand. Peart moved away from Rand’s hardline Objectivist dogma fairly early in life, subsequently accepting such decidedly non-Randian beliefs as Eastern philosophy and, um, a love of Linkin Park. “Subdivisions” is so unguarded and direct, though, that it feels like the thawing—if not the outright melting—of the Grinch’s heart. The music is melodically frigid, but in a subversive move, Peart’s percussion is the most fluid and natural component of the whole song. He may hand over his lyrics to Lee to deliver, but he makes his kit sing.
That said, Peart does contribute vocals to “Subdivisions.” Kind of. On the recording for Signals, it’s his voice that intones “subdivisions” in the chorus in a stentorian, Wizard-Of-Oz-like baritone. In concert, he lets Lifeson handle that microphone for that line; after all, Peart’s a little busy playing some of the sickest drum patterns devised by man.
Is it sad, bitter, or even juvenile for a grown man of 30 to write a song about how stultifying and soul-crushing the suburbs are, man? In 1982, Milo Aukerman of punk legend the Descendents was spewing sarcastic anthems like “Suburban Home,” with its sneering declaration, “I want to be stereotyped / I want to be classified / I want to be a clone / I want a suburban home.” Then again, Aukerman was 19 at the time. And, you know, a punk—the opposite of what bands like Rush were supposed to be all about.
Peart himself has admitted that his childhood in Port Dalhousie wasn’t always a crisis of existential proportions. In his 2004 memoir, Traveling Music, he recalls, “Our subdivisions allowed more-or-less classless societies, in which most of the kids I went to school with had similar, modest homes, durable clothing, and simple, inexpensive toys. […] All in all, Port Dalhousie in the late ’50s seemed like a magical time and place, perfect for boyhood.” That must not have lasted long, though. In an interview earlier this year—surely aware that he was dropping the title of one of Rush’s most beloved, if not most famous, songs—Peart told the Los Angeles Times, “I’d been a teenage spazz who was always picked last for teams and so am painfully aware of the subdivisions in the high school halls between the cool kids and the misfits.”
In other words, puberty-stricken melodrama—the fuel for songwriters as wide-ranging as Win Butler, Milo Aukerman, and Neil Peart—fed heavily into the creation of “Subdivisions,” which might have been more of an attempt to distill a moment in time than to rail against the status quo that a wealthy, aging rock star no longer needs to deal with. In a way, the song is more nostalgic than critical, a final and almost noble attempt to hold onto the fire and frustration that usually cools into ashen apathy as the years go by. There’s no way Peart, then or now, would ever write a song minus some amount of emotional heaviness—especially after the family tragedies, including the deaths of his wife and daughter, that befell him in the ’90s. But by capturing and entombing his suburban teenage angst in a block of frozen, monolithic prog-new-wave, maybe he at last learned how to leave it behind.