Arcade Fire: The Suburbs

Win Butler, lead singer of Arcade Fire, does not claim to be Christian. Having been […]

Ben / 8.10.10

Win Butler, lead singer of Arcade Fire, does not claim to be Christian. Having been raised Mormon, he would later take theology classes at McGill University in Montreal. Today, he is not a churchgoer but still claims to be a very “spiritual” person. In fact, while discussing the band’s previous album, Win said, “Neon Bible is 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.” I think he’s closer and more sympathetic to it than he realizes.

While Arcade Fire’s latest concept album, The Suburbs, is quite a departure from their last two, both musically and thematically, religion is still scattered throughout. Two lines of interest occur in the same song, the climax of the record, entitled “City with No Children.” The first is an indication of the band’s maturity since the release of their somewhat smug (although quite good) Neon Bible.

You never trust a millionaire quoting the Sermon on the Mount
I used to think I was not like them but I’m beginning to have my doubts
My doubts about it.

After specializing in (oftentimes warranted) accusation on their last album, Win seems to be in touch with his own baggage. The cries against the Church and Joe Simpson (the pop-singer Jessica Simpson’s father), while redirected, have also been injected with a healthy sense of humility. This idea is reiterated as the album comes to a close with part two of the title track, opening with, “If I could have it back/ all the time that we wasted/ I’d only waste it again.” This is not the Arcade Fire we’re used to hearing! Where is the subtle “‘wake up’ let’s change the world” motif found on their previous albums and public appearances?

The answer to this question is found in the second line of interest in “City With No Children,” where Win sounds awfully familiar to St. Paul in the first three chapters of Romans:

When you’re hiding underground
The rain can’t get you wet
But do you think your righteousness can pay the interest on your debt?
I have my doubts about it.

Those “hiding underground” would appear to be the self-righteous folk Win has openly ridiculed on Neon Bible—men “working for the church while their family dies.” Overextended churchmen sometimes justify their familial neglect in the name of kingdom work. In an unacknowledged effort to justify themselves before God, they fail this same God terribly for “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” (I Tim 5:8) By relaxing the requirements of the Law, these people can be righteousness in their own minds, even if everyone else knows it’s a sham.

But the implications of this lyric are not limited to overly excited churchmen. Listening to the album as a whole—the way concept albums are supposed to be understood—we see that this line also describes the front man himself. In between albums, Win has come to the realization that he is no different from Joe Simpson— that he is “the millionaire quoting the Sermon on the Mount.” Just like the churchman, Win has fashioned a standard of righteousness where “the rain can’t get him wet.” His loosened view of the Law has protected him from the conviction that follows sin.

Interestingly, Win’s self-awareness has developed—he has seen the holes in his own standard of righteousness. Unfortunately, because Win has no Gospel, it appears at times that he’s been reduced to despair. While I disagree with his appraisal of the record, one reviewer, Adam Downer, says it well: the album “just sort of exists as this sour shadow of a band that was once described as ‘hopeful.’” While the album is still dark and Win’s accusatory tone still evident—especially toward the hipsters who abandoned the band after Neon Bible—it has very real moments of humility and maturity.

I think there are a lot of people out there like Win Butler, on the verge of that nervous breakdown that is oftentimes necessary for real conversion. We can only hope that God puts some broken Christians in his path – and in the paths of those like him – who can sympathize with his discontentment with the ways of the world, and maybe even speak a word of hope.

Here’s a cool fan-made video.

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7 responses to “Arcade Fire: The Suburbs”

  1. DZ says:

    Great post Ben! My copy has yet to arrive, so I can't comment on The Suburbs – but I felt that Neon Bible displayed a deep appreciation for the religious dimension of life and some serious insight into human bondage, and not just in"Intervention" and "Antichrist Television Blues" – it's there in every song, esp "Ocean of Noise" and "My Body Is A Cage" – no? As the quote you give suggests, Butler takes it all very seriously, and it shows. In fact, one might say he needs to lighten up – that is, if his earnestness didn't sound so glorious.

    Can't wait to hear "City With No Children" – what are your other favorite tracks?

  2. Ben says:

    DZ, I enjoy most of them to tell you the truth, but if I were to choose favorites they'd be "Sprawl II: Mountains Beyond Mountains," "Ready to Start," "Rococo," "Deep Blue," and "Suburban War" (yeah half the album.) The album definitely lives up to the hype.

  3. Nathan says:

    This is an amazing album, start to finish. It works extremely well as a whole piece–there are recurring characters, themes, and words. It's like a well-written essay.

    What I also love about it is that it is intensely personal. In my perception, it's a conversation between the husband and wife who are in the band, as they try to reconcile their youths in the suburbs, and as they consider where they should/would raise any future children of their own. Consider this prayer from the opening track:

    So can you understand
    Why I want a daughter while I'm still young?
    I want to hold her hand,
    And show her some beauty,
    Before this damage is done
    But if it's too much to ask
    If it's too much to ask
    Then send me a son

    The album seems to be a deep exploration of the emotional world of the suburban life (rather, "half life"). It's an honest exploration, and a bleak one, but it's not as cynical as the previous album because it is so personal and reflective.

    It's quickly earning a place on my "favorite albums" list.

  4. Nathan says:

    PS. There is some hope in this album, too. I think the hope lies in a release from the mundane half life of the suburbs. In the fantastic "We Used to Wait", the singer sentimentally recalls the phenomenon of waiting for a letter to arrive in the mail. The "modern man" obviously never has to wait, but what a tragedy this is, we're learning.

    I'm gonna write
    A letter to my true love
    I'm gonna sign my name

    Like a patient on a table
    I wanna walk again
    Gonna move to the pain

    Now our lives are changing fast
    Now our lives are changing fast
    Hope that something pure can last
    Hope that something pure can last

  5. Ben says:

    Interesting Natan. I interpreted the "hope that something pure can last" as defeatest. As if he has no real faith that this culture of instant everything will last. I'll have to give it another look.

  6. Nathan says:

    Yeah, Ben, I think it could be read that way. I read it as a hope that something pure can last when (post)modernity crumbles away, both on the macro scale and in our own hearts.

  7. Todd says:

    This really is a powerful album, deeply in touch with fallen reality.

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