Archives For Arcade Fire

While there has been a lot of diversity in style and approach, every Arcade Fire album has, to a significant degree, been about one thing: disorientation and alienation in the modern world. They had put out four incredible albums around this theme, and then a few weeks ago they released their fifth. And I love it.

Though Pitchfork gave a weird, negative review, Everything Now holds its own amidst Arcade Fire’s impressive catalog. It’s not their best album, but it doesn’t need to top its predecessors to be an excellent album in its own right. (Feel free to skip the rest of this paragraph, but I want to address the Pitchfork article. The aspects of the album with which the reviewer takes issue are seriously bizarre: He’s mad that Win Butler is monotone on a song or two (why is expansive range a requirement for every song?), he mocks the use of synths throughout (I think it’s cool, it’s a nice development from earlier offerings, and it fits the overall project, which I’ll unpack in a minute), and he unilaterally decides that it’s in bad taste for Butler to list the days of the week in a song  (I dig the way it sounds and works with the song). I’ll just take the liberty of upgrading Pitchfork’s 5.6 rating to an 8.0. Boom.)

In some ways, Everything Now’s message is a bit on the nose: we demand everything, and we demand it now. Our Amazon-addicted society is alienating us from each other, and destroying our souls in the process. But in typical Arcade Fire fashion, the album goes beyond the lyrics. Song after song unpacks the disorientation we feel today, but the music itself is a huge part of the critique and indictment (Pitchfork somehow misses this).

Here’s how it works. Lyrically, Win Butler critiques our constant need to fill our ears, eyes, and minds with “infinite content.” He concedes that this makes us “infinitely content,” but calls out the inevitable result: “all your money’s already spent on it.” But here’s the thing: he’s singing this as part of a song that you purchased! And musically, the album itself is conspicuously upbeat and dancy.* The listener finds himself being entertained by infinite** content that simultaneously calls you out for your addiction to infinite content. It’s brilliant. And the effect is so much more powerful than a mere spoken statement. The reader is implicated in the critique. We’re all guilty as charged, just by virtue of our enjoying the thing that’s accusing us.

All of this makes the album fascinating in itself, but there’s also this: Arcade Fire has just made—probably unintentionally—a shot for shot remake of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. It’s seriously like Ecclesiastes: The Musical.

Watch how this works. The intro and first song (“Everything Now”) explore the endless journey of accumulation: music, movies, possessions. Butler sings: “Every room in my house is filled with shit I couldn’t live without” and “Every inch of space in my heart is filled with things I’ll never start.” Now jump back a few thousand years to “the Preacher” of Ecclesiastes: “Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil” (2:10). The Preacher also notes that all of a person’s hard work stems “from a man’s envy of his neighbor” (4:4—how’s that for a critique of capitalism, by the way?). And again, “All the toil of man is for his mouth, yet his appetite is not satisfied” (6:7).

Then we step into “Signs of Life.” Butler sings, “Looking for signs of life, looking for signs every night, but there’s no signs of life. So we do it again.” This is the pursuit of meaning through experience, but it’s an unending, unsatisfying expedition. And it’s exactly what the Preacher seeks (and finds elusive). In 2:8, he talks specifically about seeking satisfaction through people—singers, concubines (the sexual overtones should not be overlooked). But there’s no better summary of this than his opening poem:

“All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they flow again.
All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.” (1:7–9)

Let’s do one more song just for fun. On “Creature Comfort”—the musical highlight and a lyrical gut-punch of a song—Butler sings about boys hating themselves, girls hating their bodies, people begging God to make them famous or to at least keep them from pain. It’s a song about meaninglessness, suicide, giving up, and the futility of life. It’s tough, and the compelling viby drive of the song adds some tension to the enjoyable music and devastating message. But once again, this is actually the whole point of Ecclesiastes. The Preacher returns to this theme throughout. Here’s how he says it in 8:16–17:

“When I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how neither day nor night do one’s eyes see sleep, then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out.”

The high points in Arcade Fire’s search are found in love—not rom-com love, but fought-for, struggled-through love between doubt-filled people. This is also one of the Preacher’s realizations in Ecclesiastes. Honestly, there’s so much more to be said, but you get the point. I’m not suggesting that Arcade Fire was trying to preach Ecclesiastes in song, but I do think they were on a common journey. The Preacher set his course millennia ago, and human beings have followed in his steps ever since. I personally find Arcade Fire’s musically documented journey compelling (and convicting), and maybe you will too.

And real quick, lest there be any doubt, I want to provide the Preacher’s conclusion to his journey, lest you come to the end of Arcade Fire’s hopeful yet inconclusive final song and want to know the answer:

“The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” (12:13)

__________________________

* Let me be clear: it infuses this stylistic shift with enough fascinating elements to keep it interesting on multiple listens. Classic Arcade Fire on that count.

** The album uses song titles, style, and the intro and outro to make the album into a perfect loop. Put it on repeat and you won’t even notice the seams.

Music is unquestionably a gift from God. He didn’t have to create us with the ability to hear, much less to hear sounds so exquisite that we’re moved to tears. And yet he created the complex physics of sound and enabled our brains to interpret all of the beauty that eardrum vibrations can convey.

Christians, who should be the most attuned to God’s gifts, often find ways to limit our exposure to the depth and potency of music. For example, we like to limit our enjoyment of music to a specific subgenre we call “Christian music.” I’ve written on this before, and I also discuss it in Resonate (so, you know, you should probably buy a copy for everyone you’ve ever met…). My goal is not to degrade the music coming out of the Christian Music Industry, but to call us to engage with the wonder of God’s gift beyond this small marketing demographic.

Arcade FireIn this post, I’ll explore one brilliant piece of music that those who remain within the confines of the Christian Music Industry will never experience: the song “Afterlife” by Arcade Fire. (I wrote about Arcade Fire a bit in Resonate, but this song released after the manuscript was submitted, and I’ve fallen in love with it.)

Though Arcade Fire is not a “Christian band” by any definition I’ve heard, they frequently explore religious themes. In fact, they even purchased an abandoned church for rehearsals and recording and to give themselves access to an ultra-churchy pipe organ. So I wasn’t a bit surprised when their latest album, Reflektor, spoke of searching for the “Resurrector,” exposed the harmful effects of pornography, and meandered through other religious concepts. But I was surprised at the hopeful wrestling of “Afterlife.”

The song begins with a start: “Afterlife. Oh my God, what an awful word.” As Christians, we long for the afterlife. But Arcade Fire made me think here. After. Life. That is pretty crazy. The hope we have for the future comes after life. As the song puts it,

“After all the breath and the dirt and the fires are burnt…
After all this time, after all the ambulances go
After all the hangers-on are done hanging on
In the dead lights of the afterglow”

It reminds me of how odd our hope for the future must sound, of how odd it truly is that Paul would tell us not to “mourn as those who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13).

The song also asks, “When love is gone, where does it go?” What a question! When we lose someone we truly and deeply and actively love, what becomes of that love? This question is followed by the related question, “Where do we go?” This has got me thinking so much about the ache of love in the absence of a loved one. It raises the question typically asked only at funerals, and then only briefly. And the question of where love goes leads me straight to this profound passage in the New Testament:

“Love never ends…So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:8, 13)

Arcade Fire 2The song never answers the question, but it does not shy away. The repeated refrain is:

“Can we work it out?
Scream and shout till we work it out.”

That’s as good a summary of the human experience as I’ve heard. We’re asking where we go, and our lives are a series of screams and shouts directed toward finding the meaning to our existence, the meaning that we know exists but remains just beyond our grasp. As the Preacher said,

“I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.” (Ecclesiastes 1:14)

Best of all, the music is incredible. Mysterious, hopeful, inspiring, exultant, beautiful. Hardcore music asks some of the same questions, but something about the way Arcade Fire explores the issue in the actual music, not just in the lyrics, strikes me as compassionate, honest, and full of longing.

It’s not that Arcade Fire is teaching me about the afterlife. It’s not that I’m ready to add their song to the end of my Bible, or even my theology books. But their creative approach to these concepts has pushed me to think and feel my way through these all-important issues with a greater sensitivity and some fresh thoughts. And I’m deeply indebted to them for it.

So to those who would appreciate God’s gift in its fullness I say: Enjoy every ounce of musical beauty that Chris Tomlin conveys in his music, but don’t turn up your nose at Arcade Fire. The gift of music is being joyfully explored in many “secular” places.

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