[REVIEW] Arcade Fire’s “Sprawl ii (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”

I need the darkness someone please cut the lights

That is me when I am on my bed and lazy to switch off the lights. But jokes aside, I could never get tired listening to this masterpiece even after hearing it for so many years. It has been over a decade since indie rock band Arcade Fire released their single Sprawl ii and listening to it never gets old. Instead, I get energised by it. The lyrics describe a rather dull, drained and repetitive life in the great suburbs yet its music sounds hopeful.

They heard me singing and they told me to stop
Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock

I had a very hard time comprehending what sprawl is when I did EC3381 Urban Economics and it was only after I Googled images of sprawl did I really gain a better understanding. From an economist point of view, the rapid and unrestricted growth in low residential density buildings can create environmental impacts largely due to the need to drive a car to get to places. But it was through Arcade Fire did I also realise that the life in a sprawl is dull and repetitive. Work, eat, sleep and repeat that for 5 days straight (I’m suddenly reminded of the LOOP purposes in programming…).

These days, my life, I feel it has no purpose
But late at night the feelings swim to the surface
'Cause on the suburbs the city lights shine
They're calling at me, come and find your kind

The suburb lacks and limits one’s creativity to the extent that you can only be yourself when the city lights are “cut” off. Malls look similar not just on the outside, but on the inside, selling clothes, groceries and food for the exact same target market. And to take it literally, the existence of these malls help promote the consumption of or create a sustained supply of mass-produced goods.

Sometimes I wonder if the world's so small
Can we ever get away from the sprawl
Living in the sprawl
Dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains
And there's no end in sight

I particularly liked the use of ‘mountains’ here. It kind of denotes the feeling that these problems become so big they are like metaphorical mountains and so problematic that they are never-ending. We all know that the world is a pretty massive space yet when in this song, we find that the issues arising from sprawl make us ponder truly if there is another place for us to escape to.

And let’s not forget the music video but first, kudos to the editor from 3:34 onwards. You really did a splendid job at distinguishing Régine (the female singer) from the suburbanites. I love the concept of this video so much. The working adults mask themselves, follow others and repeat identical moves in a large parking lot, making identifying them a tad hard. It is rather ironic because despite having ample physical spaces, there is no room for individual creativity. And amidst this chaos we have Régine who, by the way looks fantastic in her dazzling and visually-striking dresses, lives in her own bubble, free from the monotonous lifestyle.

A decade later, this song still lives on. Is it a good or bad thing? I don’t know.

Here’s to a decade of Sprawl ii. Video was recorded by the Régine and her husband Win Butler during the lockdown period.

The Economics of My Life

Week 4 of semester 2 has begun and to say that I am stressed is but an understatement. FYI I meant to post this during week 1 but look at how preoccupied with school work.

“Schools are going online”, “get your internship for next summer!”, “Singapore’s GDP has contracted and entered a technical recession”. These are words that are flying around me and the need to respond to them is so urgent. It seems that I have become such city nomad that a day without checking my to-do list becomes something unusual.

I am trying a way to balance studies and my life but for a logical yet highly emotional person like me, I figured the best way would be to explain life, as I know it, in simple economics terms. That way I might probably find a way to really digest and process some facts of life.

THERE IS ALWAYS A TRADE-OFF

This is something I often say to others. The reason behind problems is scarcity. If there is no scarcity, there is no value in money. If that happens – yes hyperinflation – then how can individuals obtain a good or service in return? And it’s not just scarcity in terms of physical resources but in time and energy. Everyone has inherent constraints and there’s really nothing we can do about it. And because of this, there is a trade-off. We must choose what we want to do with our time and resources and this brings me to my next point.

IMPOSSIBLE TRINITY

It may be possible that no one can conquer the “impossible trinity” and that is, logically fine. As students we aim to be diligent in our studies, excel in internships and club activities while maintaining good social relationships. Time is the inherent constraint here but why does it seem like some people have it all? Are they lacking in other aspects of their lives, say family relationships? The nature of social media further blurs what is teal or fake, fooling us to believe that what is online is real. But in reality, this may not be the case because we only have that limited time each day.

AIM FOR A PARETO IMPROVEMENT

This was a concept I struggled with while I did EC2101 and I only understood it better after finals :’) (please be proud of me Dr. Zhang). Ironically, it was one of the economics concepts that I love most because it encourages me to aim not for perfection, but for areas of improvement without harming others.

It sounds incredible noble but I guess being able to do something meaningful is not such a bad thing?

LIKE A BUSINESS CYCLE, LIFE GOES UP AND DOWN

Nobody knows exactly what causes business cycles and when they end. But the fact that it does end, however long it may be, is comforting isn’t it?

I guess however long the difficulties lie ahead, knowing that one day tomorrow will be better is enough.

GDP = C + I + G + nX

That’s how most economies and governments measure success but I’m glad some, like Bhutan, are stepping up and using other index to measure a nation’s happiness.

As for me, I guess happiness comprises of emotional, physical and mental health, wealth, healthy and meaningful relationships and meaningful career.