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Since capturing the music world’s attention with their mournful debut in 2004, the Canadian collective Arcade Fire has remained as elusive and enigmatic as the legendary Chupacabra.
Funeral was an introspective mash-up of the angst of The Cure and the intelligence of Radiohead; their sophomore album, Neon Bible – incidentally also the title of a John Kennedy Toole novel – was a Springsteen-like indictment of social, political, and religious hypocrisy; The Suburbs, a classic rock meets Blondie concoction, won them the Grammy for best album; and now, after a cryptic graffiti art campaign, comes Reflektor – a danceable album largely inspired by the country of Haiti and the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard.
But as much as Arcade Fire has evolved musically, some things have remained the same. The band has consistently displayed a penchant for bigness: big ideas, big anthems, and big displays.
That bigness has also meant asking the big questions: questions about the meaning of life, death, and the existence of God.
In their first major single, “Wake Up,” frontman Win Butler, who was raised Mormon and studied theology in Montreal, cries: “We’re just a million little gods causing rainstorms, turning every good thing to rust.” The Suburbs also touches on faith in songs like “City with No Children” (“You never trust a millionaire quoting the sermon on the mount”) and “Culture War” (“Oh, I've read a little Bible; you see what you want to see”).
But it was Neon Bible that really cemented their preoccupation with the divine. Besides the obvious implications of the title, the band recorded the album in an old church – a fitting setting for a whole host of songs about disillusionment and doubt. “Intervention” set its sights on fundamentalist hypocrisy (“Been working for the church while your life falls apart, they're singing hallelujah when defeating your heart”); “Antichrist Television Blues,” on the health and wealth gospel (“Dear God, I'm a good Christian man; in your glory, I know you understand that you got to work hard, and you got to get paid”); and “My Body Is a Cage” on a kind of gnosticism that informs much of American evangelicalism (“My body is a cage that keeps me from dancing with the one I love, but my mind holds the key”).
In an interview with Paste magazine, Butler argued that Neon Bible was “addressing religion in a way that only someone who actually cares about it can. It’s really harsh at times, but from the perspective of someone who thinks it has value.” Value or not, he has declined to identify with any one religion or denomination. “I'm not really a churchgoer these days,” he says in another interview.
Still, Butler seems hesitant to reduce the world to what science can discover. In another interview with the A.V. Club, he explains that when it comes to matters of evil, death, and love, “there's not really any scientific way to talk about it. Whenever you're talking about meaning, basically … I think a lot of the human experience has to do with trying to understand what things mean, and there’s not really any tools to do that unless you’re thinking about it in a more spiritual or philosophical realm.”
Butler, like so many in our generation, seems caught between a rock and a hard place. On one side is traditional American religion, with its didactic moralizing, crass politicization, and social scandals; on the other, a cold and fractured worldview which, in eschewing the reality of God and the human spirit, has lost the meaning of man. So he makes what seems like the reasonable choice, and opts for the safe middle ground: he defines himself as spiritual, but not religious.
But interestingly enough, Arcade Fire continue to be drawn toward what can only be described as a religious identity in Reflektor.
In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Butler identifies Haiti, where his wife and band mate Régine Chassagne’s family originates, as one of the major influences behind their latest album. “I’ve never been to a place with more belief and more knowledge of God,” Butler explains. Haiti indeed is universally religious; 96 percent of the population is Christian, and 80 percent identify as Roman Catholic.
Butler also confesses: “I studied the Bible and philosophy in college, and I think in a certain sense, that's the kind of stuff that still makes my brain work.” He goes on to cite Kierkegaard’s The Present Age, a searing social commentary on the tepid, information-driven “crowd” in a reflective age. Kierkegaard, of course, was one of the greatest Christian philosophers of the 19th century. He was nothing if not a religious individual.
The songs reflect these influences and bring them to life, not only musically (the Haitian influence is on full display in “Here Comes the Night Time”), but lyrically. The search for passion in a “reflective age” manifests itself in songs like “Joan of Arc” (“They’re the ones that put you down cause they got no heart, but I’m the one that will follow you”), “We Exist” (“They’re walking around, head full of sound, acting like we don’t exist, but we exist”), and “Supersymmetry” (“If telling the truth is not polite, then I guess you’ll have to fight”).
But the lyrics also allude to the deeper influence of the Gospel. Butler references Heaven in two songs (“If this is heaven, I don’t know what it’s for … If this is heaven, I need something more”), prayer and resurrection (“Thought you were praying to the resurrector”), Judas (“Not the first betrayed by a kiss”), the Psalms (“The cup, it overflows”), and the afterlife (“When love is gone, where does it go? And where do we go?”).
None of this, of course, constitutes a religious statement – but that’s what makes it, in its own way, a kind of statement about religiosity. Butler excoriates religious corruption and complacency, but still finds himself faced with what can only be called religious yearnings and questions. What do I believe about this passing world, and what does it mean for me and the way I live my life with others? Time and time again, we see the band questing for a single language, structure, and community that will connect all the dots, one that acknowledges the sacredness of the world without succumbing to mere fideism.
Will any old belief do, as long as we believe with all our heart? Absolutely not. If Arcade Fire is a testament to anything, it’s this: the quest for authentic faith means forgetting about what is comforting, or familiar, or advantageous to us, and finally asking: what is the truth? Quid est veritas?