Preface: I had no idea how hard it would be to write this post. After several false starts, I re-watched a lecture called "Three Chords and the Desire for Truth: Rock 'n' Roll as Search for the Infinite" given by the Irish journalist John Waters, in which he says that the way we feel about music is something we shouldn't talk about. Ah...right. No wonder: I've read dozens of articles and watched just as many performances on YouTube and I still haven't been able to type a word. I've scrawled all over napkins and loose leaf as ideas have come to me; but why am I so reluctant to put these thoughts out there? I suppose because it is so very personal and subjective. I'll just say this: if I achieve nothing in this post accept getting you to click the above link and watch the Waters talk for an hour and a half, then I will have done a great service to God and the whole world. I'll be referring to it throughout both parts of this post, but you needn't watch it in order to follow along.
Inscribed on the back of my iPod are the words, "If music be the food of love, play on." It is a line from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and it is exactly how I feel about the effect that music can have on the soul. It's clear that plenty of chant and symphonies and movie soundtracks (heh) can be the "food of love"; but I submit what every other fan already knows—that rock 'n' roll can be, as well.
For me, two bands stand out for all of the times that have set my soul on fire with joy and pain and life: Arcade Fire and Mumford & Sons. I know that some people who are reading this are already annoyed that those two band names are touching in a sentence with nothing but the word "and" keeping one from tainting the other. From what I can tell, they both are a major part of hipster fandom but seem to be fixed on opposite sides of the gamut. I've discovered that I'm something of an anomaly for loving both bands at the same time—but I hope it's not quite like when one of my classmates in a college course on Tolkien and Lewis said that her two favorite series were The Chronicles of Narnia and His Dark Materials. I then suffered a suppressed freakout since I knew that Phillip Pullman crafted his stories to convey a message exactly opposite to that of Lewis's. The difference here, I think, is that both bands do have the same message, even if it is expressed in different ways and irrespective of how conscious it may be in the intentions of the band members. The message is that we desire so much more than what seems available in this life.
I happened to be watching Saturday Night Live when Arcade Fire made their first appearance to most of America. They performed "Intervention." My first thought was that the lead singer (Win Butler) looked sort of hungry and sad. Then as the music began to swell, my heart rose with it: "What? What is this?" I thought—just as John Waters describes. It wasn't the voices that grabbed me, but what was in the voices—under and surrounding them—: a longing, an intensity, a rawness of emotion, an exquisite talent. There's something here. Then, some the lyrics began to surface:
Working for the church while your family diesWow. Rough stuff. Over the last seven years of listening to Arcade Fire very faithfully, I find that there is usually a disconnect between my head and my heart. There's a wrestling within me as I ponder the world of Win Butler and friends, yet I always go back for more of their music. Since I have every episode of Seinfeld on file in my brain, I think the best way to capture this struggle is to recall "The Kramer", in which a painting of Kramer himself elicits this interchange between two onlooking art enthusiasts:
You take what they give you
You keep it inside
Every spark of friendship and love will die without a home
Hear the soldier groan all quiet and alone
WIFE: “I sense great vulnerability. A man-child crying out for love. An innocent orphan in the postmodern world.”I wouldn't be quite as hard on this band as this husband is on the painting; but I would echo the wife's comments exactly. Situated squarely in the midst of the postmodern condition, Arcade Fire is constantly preoccupied with themes of childhood, innocence, wonder, freedom, roots, and dreams, usually lamenting the loss of these precious things. Now, as a mother watching that video clip of "Intervention," the sight of Win Butler's anemic-looking face and droopy eyes triggered my maternal impulse. At the end of the song, several of his guitar strings have broken and, out of disappointment, he smashes it on the stage. He looks just like my son when he has made a tower out of blocks but then obliterates it when he sees that it's not as good as the one in his head or perhaps even in his heart—his interior castle in smooth wooden stones. Looking at Butler's gaunt face and hearing the bottomless desire in his voice and the voices of the instruments, I find deeper meaning in the phrase "starving artist." He is starving for Truth; and he is sad because he thinks reality doesn't meet desire. Christianity offers the belief that reality does meet desire since reality includes the higher Truth of which Butler seems to have despaired.
HUSBAND: “I see a parasite. A sexually depraved miscreant who is seeking only to gratify his basest and most immediate urges.”
WIFE: “His struggle is man’s struggle. He lifts my spirits.”
HUSBAND: “He is a loathsome, offensive brute. Yet I can’t look away.”
WIFE: “He transcends time and space.”
HUSBAND: “He sickens me.”
WIFE: “I love it.”
HUSBAND: “Me too.”
This longing for truth through rock 'n' roll is the theme of John Water's splendid talk. Quoting music and culture critic Greil Marcus, Waters describes something called the yarrah, which all great musicians have in their voice. He says it has a bit of a yes in it, but the rest is the arrah which expresses resignation, frustration, a deep sense of almost inarticulacy. Music is the attempt to surrender to the yarrah or to make it surrender to the artist, to bury it, to dig it out of the ground, a note so unfinished and so unsatisfied. He then adds that, when one considers the experience of a brilliant piece of music, the question might really be "Is the song singing you?" Arcade Fire delivers this masterfully. Listen to the song "Wake Up" with headphones on and eyes closed. Do you feel the yarrah? Doesn't it feel like it's singing you?
Yes, Arcade Fire sings me. Two of the "Neighborhood" tracks ("Tunnels" and "Kettles") from their first album Funeral have become part of my very being I've listened to them so much. These people seem to know me—something about me that I don't even know myself. But am I as dark as these words?! Sometimes I am. In my fallen state of darkened intellect and weakened will, there are occasions when nothing will help me out of a sad spell more than blaring "No Cars Go" into my ears on the elliptical machine. The lyrics meet me where I am, but the music lifts me out of myself. The yarrah is bifurcated between the words and the instruments: the former cries out in despair while the latter reaches up in hope.
I did feel a sense of satisfaction and even relief when John Waters said that the lyrics don't necessarily matter. I have had this intuition ever since my dad played The Who's "Baba O'Riley" for me in the car when I was a kid and I watched him bliss out to the words "teenage wasteland" being screamed over and over again. The whole is greater than the sums of its parts. It's like when poets describe their work by saying they compose a poem, send it out to be read, and then finally discover what it means in the hearts of their readers. Reading a few interviews that Win Butler has given convinced me that sometimes he doesn't really know what he is singing about. It's a sensation tied up with memories mixed up with dreams and a few words that happen to rhyme. For example, Arcade Fire's second album is titled Neon Bible because Win Butler wrote those two words down one day and thought they sounded cool together. Well after he came up with that title he and his bandmates bought an abandoned church and transformed it into a studio to record that album. As they played their hearts out to the groans of a pipe organ and by the blue light of stained-glass windows, they revealed how very Christ-haunted their music is.
I had the privilege of seeing Kenneth Branagh's new Macbeth through National Theater Live last month and was struck by the choice to stage the play in a de-consecrated Gothic church. The audience sat in pews and most of the play's action took place in the nave, which was filled with mud. I thought of Arcade Fire's church-turned-recording-studio and realized that the feeling I get from their music is much like the feeling I get from Shakespeare's tragedies. I'm dazzled by poetry at the same time that I'm wrenched by suffering. The texture of the songs is so rich and colorful that it reminds me of illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages. Describing their desires in words and sounds, they hint at a sacramental world view that awakens us to the sacred, accessible right here in the midst of us. I only wish that I could tell them that all of that agony they feel—the loss, the betrayal, the hopelessness—all of it can be sanctified in the sacrifice of the Lamb; and every beautiful thing they've glimpsed in dreams (and have dismissed as merely that) is in truth far more real than their art will ever be able to express.
The lyrics of Arcade Fire do not ever suggest that one could find in God the ground of truth of which the songs sing with such deep desire. Indeed, God is an only implicitly touched-upon topic of their songs, as in the line "working for the Church while your family dies." Christianity (and, implicitly, God) appears here fleetingly, as tied up with past wrongs committed by their loved ones, particularly their parents. The great weight, the deep and abiding wounds inflicted by those whom one ought best to be able to trust—that is the context within which, perhaps, God does not seem so obviously a stabilizing ground.
In the song "Windowsills" Butler cries out: "You can't forgive what you can't forget." Christianity proclaims that God does just this—that he forgives and transforms rather than forgetting—but where, in these lyrics, do we find any evidence that this could seem a plausible answer to Butler's anguish? Anyone experiencing the life described by so many of these songs might understandably find this notion of forgiveness and love to have been already unmasked—as an untrustworthy sham, a fantasy pursued by those who, disavowing with their lives what they profess with their lips, "work" for the Church while their families die. It would be easy to draw from such an example the conviction that "[e]very spark of friendship and love will die without a home."
How can one find a home that others seem already to have shown to be false? Is it possible for the singer depicted by these songs to discover some hope—to perhaps be awakened to an indefatigable steadfast merciful lover (Ps. 100:5)? To be freed by this love even to the point of forgiving those who have so greatly trespassed against us?
Here is where I find Arcade Fire's music especially effective. It is not thoroughly despairing but, in its yarrah, suggests the possibility of transcending the suburban wasteland of despair by inviting the audience into a community of anguish, yes, but also of compassion. Butler's lyrics declare to others who are wounded and adrift: We know what you feel. We yearn for more! Knowing that others feel what one feels, one might be bound with others in friendship and might even discover the ability to turn outward to others in compassion—even, in great time, toward those by whom one has been so deeply wounded. For the compassion to which Butler invites his listeners, containing within itself the suggestion of authentic love, is itself the counterexample to others' lovelessness, from which he has so suffered. If music nourishes compassion, then compassion can become the food of love—and a place where God may make His dwelling place in our hearts.
Play on, Arcade Fire—may your music bring you and your fans closer to God evermore.
Now please, please, please watch the John Waters talk (linked again so you don't even have to scroll!) or at least write down on your calendar when you'll do it. You will be so happy. And here are two really good articles on Arcade Fire's music: The Hipster Conservative's look at the Grammy-winning album The Suburbs plus Aleteia's piece on the newly released Reflektor.
After many years of listening to Arcade Fire in addition to most of the bands that are now linked to them on Pandora, I suddenly heard "Little Lion Man" by Mumford & Sons which came like a (banjo-y) bolt out of the blue. I told my husband, "I found a new band! They're sort of like....Arcade Fire...but without despair!" Join me next time for part 2 of this post.