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Arcade Fire: Transcendence in a Suburban Wasteland

Eric Fullgraf

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Arcade Fire deserves our attention, because they ask the biggest questions, and, like Jacob, are not afraid to wrestle with God. Their latest album Reflektor brings together such influences as the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, Haitian rara music and Søren Kierkegaard. At first listen, these elements appear to be a hodge-podge. But Win Butler has a master plan and it works.

In the song “We Exist,” Butler describes a highly intelligent father, preoccupied by his own lofty thoughts. “Walking around head full of sound / Acting like we don't exist / Walk in a room stare out through you / Talking like we don't exist / But we exist.” Butler indicts the Deus absconditus. Reversing the demand of the Heavenly Father to believe in Him, mankind pleads with God to believe that we exist and deserve His attention.

Win Butler acknowledges his debt to Søren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard argues that God is holy and wholly other. We must not expect him to respond to our pleas that “we exist.” God may even redeem us through the blood of Christ, but He will never involve Himself in our daily struggles. Every man must grope around in the darkness alone. Like the miserable children in “We Exist,” Butler feels stranded in a vast suburban sprawl with all its drab, quotidian details. Since their 2004 debut album Funeral, Arcade Fire has returned regularly to the theme of growing up in the suburbs. Butler’s love/hate relationship with middle class life is a struggle for the transcendent when everything about our surroundings militates against eternal concerns.

The title cut of Reflektor is another Kierkegaard reference, specifically Two Ages (1846). In this work, Kierkegaard laments the corrosive effects of democracy on our culture. The modern leveling of society makes it nearly impossible for any man to aspire to greatness. Ours is a “reflective age,” because equals can only reflect each other, but never rise to be exemplary. “[W]hen the age is reflective and passionless and destroys everything concrete, the public becomes everything and is supposed to include everything. And that again shows how the individual is thrown back upon himself. [...] No longer can the individual, as in former times, turn to the great for help when he grows confused.”

This tug-of-war between the transcendent and the shabby is key to Win Butler’s aesthetic. Butler’s antidote to this duality is Art. In the original Orpheus and Euridice myth, a peasant girl named Euridice is bitten by a snake and dragged down to the Underworld. Orpheus, her lover, follows her and charms Hades with his beautiful music. He convinces Hades to release Euridice from the Land of the Dead, but as Orpheus emerges into the Land of the Living, he looks back to make sure Euridice is not falling behind, and watches in horror as Euridice recedes back into Death. Art is mankind’s best chance for overcoming death, but it always fails because of human frailty.

Butler casts himself as Orpheus and his wife Régine Chassagne as Euridice. In the song “Awful Sound (Oh, Euridice)” Butler sings, “You fly away from me, but it's an awful sound when you hit the ground.” Chassagne responds with “It’s Never Over (Oh, Orpheus).” This is not merely the struggle of Orpheus and Euridice. It is the struggle of humankind. How do we find heroes in a reflective age? How do we reach for the Divine in a lost and sin-cursed world? Has God abandoned us to an earthly hell of strip malls, used car dealerships and convenience stores? Is God aloof or “a very present help in trouble?”