“Better to illuminate than merely to shine, to deliver to others contemplated truths than merely to contemplate.” ~ St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae II-II q. 188 a. 6 co.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

If Music Be the Food of Love, Play On (Part 2, Mumford & Sons)

Preface: After I wrote about Arcade Fire (part 1 of this post), I found a music video for a few of their new songs which appeared on Saturday Night Live. It's loaded with celebrity cameos, including Bono from U2, the band to which Arcade Fire is most often compared.  In the middle of the first song ("Here Comes the Night," probably my favorite from Reflektor), there's a joke at the expense of Mumford & Sons. I'm not surprised by it, as it exemplifies my earlier point about the two bands occupying opposite positions in the hipster gamut. But aside from a couple of funny parts, this music video is just too weird for me and even a bit nightmarish. It reminds me of why I never watched other AF music videos and never really wanted to see them in concert. I love a lot of their music, but I prefer to enjoy it far away from the visual interpretations that often have  been associated with it. I haven't faced that tension in Mumford & Sons; and what I aim to do in this post is to defend Marcus and his friends against those who hate them. Here is an article from First Things titled "Against Mumford" that got me all worked up. Be sure to read the comments, too, a few of which I found particularly satisfying.   

I heard a little snippet of "Little Lion Man" one fall day in 2010 and promptly rushed to my computer to find more of that sound. The first song I clicked on transported me to a place that can best be described as wedding feast celebrating a marriage between my senses and my nostalgia. I had chosen "Sigh No More"the title track for Mumford & Sons' first album, because I immediately recognized the words of Shakespeare's poem by the same title which is often used in film and theater adaptations of his comedies. As I heard these four male voices singing together, I felt transported into their worldtheir shared friendship represented by the words carefully shared by all, and also their individual hearts suggested by the different voices. Then I realized that the loveliness of the lyrics reflected the swelling in my soul:
Serve God, love me and mend
This is not the end
Lived unbruised, we are friends
And I'm sorry
I'm sorry

Sigh no more, no more
One foot in sea, one on shore
My heart was never pure
You know me
You know me
Yes, I know you, whoever you are, I thought; and you seem to know me. How did you manage that? The experience was just as John Waters describes in his talk:
What? What is that? What is that? […] Who is this guy with this voice? This strange voice, this ethereal voice, who seems to know something about me? Who seems to know what I want? Who seems to know what appeals to me. The song seemed to promise some world some place that I’d only dreamed about.
I felt like I was listening to the friendship shared between C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and the other "Inklings" set to music. I felt like the Four Evangelists were soothing me to a peaceful rest, telling me all together but each in their own unique way that I must serve God, adding that it will be difficult, I will screw it up sometimes, yet I need not dwell in sadness:
But man is a giddy thing
Oh man is a giddy thing
Oh man is a giddy thing
Oh man is a giddy thing
Then, as the song picks up in tempo, my heart rose with it and my reaction was not unlike that of the Emotional Baby. These four men (probably from the Shire, I imagined) were singing about love, and the love they described was real love, Love Himselfthe love that moves the sun and the other stars. Unlike millions of songwriters before them, these men knew that
Love; it will not betray you
Dismay or enslave you, it will set you free
Be more like the man you were made to be
I was utterly enraptured by this song, and it is because of that fact that I take issue with the author of "Against Mumford." He says that their "tradition" is invented and inauthentic, just an eclectic mishmash. Well Jimmy crack corn and I don't care. It is moving to me and millions of other people. It touches on something real, plugging me into the "Deep Magic" described in The Chronicles of Narnia. It might not be firmly rooted in a musical tradition, but it is in a religious and literary one. That's what enlivens me. So many beautiful things that I've read and forgotten about return to the forefront of my mind and heart when I hear some of these songs. I wished that it had been released a few years earlier so that I could have blared it for my high school students when we came across references to love in the New Testament which served as a stumbling block to them in their painful life (and music) experience. Some of them seemed cynical and unmoved when St. Paul told them "Love never fails" (1Cor 13:8) but perhaps they might give that idea another chance if they heard it being proclaimed here and now from a drum, a guitar, a piano, and a banjo at full voice. Mumford & Sons has managed to make St. Paul sing to an enormous amount of people. This, I believe, is what we all have to thank them for: they preach to the masses, as the NPR article said. Of course they are no substitute for actual confessions of faith or liturgical worship; but they can complement those things. I know as well as anyone else who has carefully studied their lyrics or read their sometimes troubling interviews that they aren't perfect and they have plenty of growing to do (just like the rest of us); but their music is like a corporal work of mercy in a world filled with seriously offensive forms of artistic expression.

The next song I heard was "The Cave." I sent it to my brother and he said, "If that song were a woman, I would marry her." From that moment on, I knew I wanted to go with him to a concert. I had never been to a live rock 'n' roll show in my life except for catching a bit of Hootie & the Blowfish when I was a kid. Mumford & Sons reminded me of themof those very long road trips to visit our extended family each summer. It's the kind of music all five of us could agree to. Hootie colored my childhood with my family by way of heart-filled sounds and words; and I could feel Mumford taking that place in my early adulthood. I really think that nostalgia plays a large role in my enthusiasm for this band. But whereas Hootie mentions crying in almost every one of his songs, Mumford sings of kneeling. I was kneeling the first time I really heard the priest say, "Behold the Lamb of God." I was kneeling when my husband proposed to me. I was kneeling right before I wrote this post and prayed that I would produce something worthwhile. When my brother and I were finally surrounded by thousands of others Mumford & Sons fans who were jumping for joy as they sang about kneeling, I felt very grateful that this band had managed to pull together this crowd in such a way, and that we all at that moment agreed that forgiveness and joy and friendship were what we were cheering for.

I am not naive about the fact that some people surrender themselves to music and wind up very lost, quite apart from a stable community of love searching for God. With the use of drugs or just highly stimulated baser passions, some rock 'n' roll fans whip themselves up into a frenzy of self-indulgence. Pope Benedict identified this problem, and it is his comments on the subject (see bottom of page 9) that inspired the Irish journalist John Waters to build an exposition (the subject of his lecture recommended as a companion to these two posts) in order to say to his beloved pope, 'Yes, rock 'n' roll culture can lead people astray; but it doesn't have to. There is more going on.' He talks at length about the so-called "27 Club" which includes all of the musicians who died at that young age, often as a result of drug and alcohol abuse. He suggests that the real cause of their death is that they misunderstand their own desire. Fans, too, are at risk of this same disordered seeking, and so they must be discerning: Does this musicthis particular songfeed love? Is it real love? Is it love that will not betray, dismay, or enslave me? If not, skip it.

Mumford & Sons is criticized for a hundred things and I feel like I've heard it all. Some people just can't stand the banjo. Some people are annoyed by their constructed back-country image and their lack of literal sons. Some boycott them for using the F-word a few times and for saying some strange things about Christian identity. Regarding their sincerity, I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. Regarding their faith commitments, I'll just say they seem spottily catechized and unsatisfied with the version of Christianity that has been presented to them. As I claimed about the members of Arcade Fire, I think they have a very sacramental world view that wants proper ordering. I wish I could be their Apologetics teacher. I have a great affection for these guys. I see them as very childlikefilled with humility, wonder, and joy; and I hear in them a deep and lasting yarrah (which I described in my previous post) which is almost perfectly illustrated by that laughing, aching "harrr" sound that they so often make when no other sound will do.

If you watch the lecture from Mr. Waters to the very end, you'll  hear him discuss Mumford & Sons. He says that after he heard their first album, he thought they were "this new thing" in which the art is informed by the nitty-gritty of everyday life while contemplating great transcendent truths in a Chestertonian way. He was really disappointed in their second album, however. (I thought the piece in the Atlantic captured the problems with it quite well.) But, wisely, Waters isn't ready to dismiss them yet. He says, "The fact that they were therethat that flame flickered for a little whiletells me that it still could happen." He adds that it's "harder and harder because the culture of misunderstanding gets in the way." I really like most of the new album, but I did notice something off about it. I think that the culture in which they and their fans find themselves did get in the way for them. Instead of playing for God in their midst when two or three (or four in this case) of them were gathered, they played too much for their fans and for their fame. It is like C.S. Lewis said: "Aim at Heaven and you will get Earth thrown in. Aim at Earth and you get neither." But I join in Waters's hope that it can happen again. And I found that the live show which mixed both albums was brilliantly done. I had the same sensation that I had when I first met them in "Sigh No More." They peacefully, graciously invited me back into their joyful world with "Lover's Eyes," and I soon began to anticipate each song, calling them out to my brother before they started playing again. That familial sense came back to me: I remembered happy times with my parents and brothers; and I imagined myself with the Inklings sharing laughs and pints at The Eagle and Child. I celebrated it heartily.

Perhaps this hilarious parody video of "Hopeless Wanderer" (which the band commissioned in order to make light of themselves, by the way) may help endear them to you. If that doesn't work and you just can't bring yourself to like them, please don't ruin it for any of their fans by making them feel stupid or uncultured. You don't want to wind up like these hipsters discussing their playlists, do you? And to those of you who are already fans, I recommend watching the documentary Big Easy Express, including the deleted scenes which contain some of the finest moments.

I see both of these bands serving as modern day poets who shake us loose from complacency. I believe Mumford & Sons has some great answers for Arcade Fire and lovely reminders for many of us (perhaps as a Brideshead Revisited to a Great Gatsby as I suggest in my earlier two posts); but they still have a long way to go. They're only in their twenties, after all, and their hearts are at least beating very hard indeed. If they keep seeking, acknowledging their weakness, asking for forgiveness, and calling out things like "awake my soul," I trust they will do much more good than harm with their fame.

One of the newest Arcade Fire songs (the one I mentioned at the top) asks the question, "If there's no music up in heaven then what's it for?" I'll leave you with that.

Next topic: Unless something unexpected like Gravity happens to me again, I plan to see the Coen Brothers' upcoming film, Inside Llewyn Davis and write something about it in early December, followed by a post on Dante and Dickens in time for Christmas.

Monday, November 4, 2013

If Music Be the Food of Love, Play On (Part 1, Arcade Fire)

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 knowsthat 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 timebut 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 thoughtjust as John Waters describes. It wasn't the voices that grabbed me, but what was in the voicesunder 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 dies
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
Wow. 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:
WIFE: “I sense great vulnerability. A man-child crying out for love. An innocent orphan in the postmodern world.”
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.”
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 hearthis 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.

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 mesomething 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 feelthe 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 trustthat 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 thisthat he forgives and transforms rather than forgettingbut 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 unmaskedas 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 hopeto 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 compassioneven, 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 loveand a place where God may make His dwelling place in our hearts.

Play on, Arcade Firemay 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.