Landscape with Figures and Sprawl II

7:00 AM

George Tooker, Landscape With Figures, 1966

Arcade Fire's music is innovative at best, but there is something downright unsettling about "Sprawl II"(Mountains Beyond Mountains).  The band filled the song's 2010 album The Suburbs with discontented themes, but none of the other tracks are set to such thematically incongruous, catchy dance music.  At the surface, everything is joyously glossed over.  Underneath are real hurt and loneliness.

"Sprawl II" retains a clear moral throughout.  As the intro goes, "They heard me singing and they told me to stop/Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock," a clear plea for individuality in a conformist world.  The singer goes on to lament about how the "dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains," the further scars that society has left upon the physical world.  The first verse describes a city beckoning to the narrator to find her niche in society, but when she persists in her quest toward her own identity up to the second verse, the community rejects her.  In the third verse, the subject changes to the plural -- even through the oppression, the singer has found a group of her own.

It is difficult to tell whether "Sprawl II "has a happy ending.  A personal struggle has no solution but only spreads to other people, a purgatory where no goals are realized.  The song's music grows to match its despairing lyrics when the ghostly-sounding bridge kicks in, but the dance beat persists and picks up before the third verse with renewed vigor and a key change.  Listeners can interpret the music's meaning differently with each replay.

I stumbled across this equally disturbing image, Landscape With Figures by mid-twentieth century artist George Tooker.  The eerie sprawl of figures in cubicles parodies an office building, but the unearthly red light evokes purgatory or hell.  The figures, with their resolutely unhappy faces, are damned in their oppression.  The image reflects the state of corporate America from the early fifties to mid-sixties.  It shows a country regrouping from the chaos of another world war and marching towards structured conformity, its people frightened into strict social norms after the Red Scare.  The front man's face displays complex emotions, from fear to doubt, and defiance to some grim kind of resolve.

"Sprawl II" perpetuates the timeless theme of the search for identity, and the painting shows the same philosophical struggle, even though it comes from a different time period.  Despite their initial aesthetic appeal, both pieces of art are haunting upon closer inspection, suspended in idealistic longing without any progress.

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