Arcade Fire’s spiritual heritage

“There’s something wrong in the heart of man,” sang lead singer Win Butler on 2004’s Funeral, and Christian fans of Arcade Fire have been nodding along ever since.

For the attuned ear, it can be easy to spot the Biblical references and themes throughout the band’s catalogue. There are so many that you can play Arcade Fire Bible Bingo. “The lion and the lamb ain’t sleeping yet” — Isaiah 11:6! Nailed it! But what do all these references mean for the Christian listener? Is Arcade Fire a Christian band? Are they subverting the Bible? Or something in between?

Let’s get that first question out of the way: Arcade Fire is not a Christian band. Lead singer Win Butler has said that he grew up “somewhat religious” but isn’t “a churchgoer these days.” But he is interested in religion, has studied Scripture, and identifies as religious. So we won’t be singing Arcade Fire songs on Sunday morning, but the references are there, and they’re worth exploring. The band’s latest album, Reflektor, came out yesterday, but before we get into it, let’s have a look back at the band’s history.


Arcade Fire Album Art: FuneralIn the aftermath of several deaths of band family members, Arcade Fire recorded Funeral back in 2004. The album opens with utter sadness: their “parents are crying” and they hope for the comfort of “golden hymns” (“Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels)”). This is followed by confusion (“The neighbours can dance in the police disco lights” — “Neighbourhood #2 (Lakai)”), depression (the aforementioned “heart of man” line — “Neighbourhood #3 (Power Out)”) and forgiveness (“If you still want me please forgive me” – “Crown of Love”). The most striking aspect of the album on a whole is its redemptive arc, culminating in the triumphant songs of “Wake Up” and “Rebellion (Lies).”

Neon Bible

Arcade Fire Album Art: Neon BibleNeon Bible somehow comes across as a darker album than Funeral. While some claim that the album is anti-religious, to me it reads more as a caution against false beliefs, including misguided church leaders. “(Antichrist Television Blues),” the album’s darkest moment, tells the story of a devout man who uses terrible means to show his devotion, but it’s told empathetically and ultimately reads like a confession. On the other side of the pendulum, they paint a picture of heaven, a “place where no cars go” (“No Cars Go”), and long to be with “the one I love” (“My Body is a Cage”).

The Suburbs

Arcade Fire Album Art: The SuburbsIf Funeral is about coming to grips with the pain of loss, and Neon Bible is about finding truth amid false beliefs, The Suburbs looks inward to realize that the innocence we once possessed has been lost. Every good deed we try to do is not enough to save us: “Do you think your righteousness can pay the interest on your debt? I have my doubts about it” (“City with No Children”). A case has been made that The Suburbs reads like a modern Sermon on the Mount, but I wouldn’t go so far.


Arcade Fire Album Art: ReflektorEarlier this week, the band posted a full album stream of Reflektor on YouTube. The stream is paired with Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus, a 1959 film that modernizes the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice. Those Greek characters play a prominent role on Reflektor, gracing the album cover and appearing on several tracks.

The album has to be seen in light of the Greek legend. Here’s the super fast version: Orpheus and Eurydice fall in love, Eurydice dies, and Orpheus goes down to hell to try to bring her back through the magic of song. The album follows the arc of this story, with the couple falling in love (“Reflektor”), Eurydice’s death (“Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)”), and Orpheus’ attempt to bring her back (“It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)”). In that light, “Afterlife” is talking about the end of that relationship (“Afterlife, oh my God, what an awful word”; “Can we work it out?”; “When love is gone where does it go?”) just as much as a spiritual afterlife.

Through the prism of this story, the band takes a look at relationships today: distracted by screens (“Reflektor”) and broken by porn (“Porno”). They also touch on a laundry list of 21st century social anxieties: miscommunication (“Reflektor”), photo-obsession (“Flashbulb Eyes”), fitting in (“Normal Person”), even #FOMO (“Here Comes the Night Time”).

But underneath the Haitian beats and the Greek retelling is the same seeking voice that we’ve seen on previous albums. On “Here Comes the Night Time” Butler sings, “If you’re looking for hell, just try looking inside,” an echo of Funeral‘s “Neighbourhood #3 (Power Out).” “We Exist” is perhaps the most heartbroken song on this album, what sounds like a desperate cry to God: “If you turned away, what would I say? Not the first betrayed by a kiss.” (Luke 22:48!) Later on, he gets even more desperate and angry: “Will you watch us drown?”

At the core of every Arcade Fire song is a heartbeat of emotion. Every song they sing is a reflection of the angst the band feels, an angst that is a reflection (of a reflection) of our generation. But not all is lost. Every song offers a glimmer of hope, and not just a vague hope. Here’s Butler again, talking about religion: “I think hope only means anything if it’s in something real.” It’s that hope that makes their songs so powerful contrasted against all the darkness they see in the world.

Which brings us back to “We Exist.” “I’d lose my heart if I turned away from you,” he sings, and offers real hope: “Maybe if you hang together, you can make the changes in our hearts.”

Flickr photo by Man Alive!