Saturday, December 20, 2008

Is the ‘Neon Bible’ Right?

The Arcade Fire[1] is indisputably one of the most successful indi/alternative rock bands of the last 5 years. I honestly wish I had a nickel for every chat room or comment block mention of them as ‘the greatest rock band of our generation.’ So I approached their first album, Funeral, with eager expectation. While I found the hyperbole overstated, it was a very fine album with fertile themes of community, neighborhood, family and the human condition. The Arcade Fire certainly falls on the list of my favorite things that are Canadian with hockey, beaver tails[2], Toronto, Banff, the Burgess Shale, Samantha Bee, the Drumheller dinosaur museum, the ‘two-ny’[3] and our friends Richie and Allen. So I moved on to their second album with heightened expectation.

The first time I listened to Neon Bible, I knew it was a thematically provocative piece. As pipe organs and orchestras swelled I caught lines like:

“…It's in the Neon Bible, the Neon Bible…”

“…Working for the Church while your family dies…”

“…Dear God, I'm a good Christian manIn your glory, I know you understandThat you gotta work hard and you gotta get paid…”

But, because their lovely artistic mumbling I didn’t catch half the words until my third time through it. By then I was pretty sure that it was an acerbic anti-Christian album. But after many more listens and a careful reading of the lyrics, I think it is far more complicated than that. Neon Bible is unquestionably dark. It is bitter and cynical about culture, commerce, media and the church. But upon more careful reading, I don’t really think they are making a full frontal attack on Christianity or faith. There is no doubt that faith is the pejorative theme of the work, but it is not so much faith itself, but the unholy alliances it makes with politics, television, celebrity culture, consumerism and the like. Win said in one interview “There's definitely an aspect of religion always combining with culture and becoming a third thing.” I think this idea is the thematic heart of the album. In this sense, it is a prophetic album, with themes that I often resonate with. Here are some thoughts on the most overtly spiritual tracks. But since this is an interpretive exercise it will also be a reflection on hermeneutics[4] in general:

Neon Bible

A vial of hope and a vial of pain
In the light they both looked the same
Poured them out on into the world
On every boy and every girl

It's in the Neon Bible, the Neon Bible
Not much chance for survival
If the Neon Bible is right

Take the poison of your age
Don't lick your fingers when you turn the page
What I know is what you know is right
In the city it's the only light

I have read a wide variety of interpretations of the title track. They range from the wholesale dismissal of Christianity to a critique of television.

The former interpretation takes its clues from “Not much chance for survivalIf the Neon Bible is right”

The latter takes the opening verse as a description of how the news delivers genocide and famine (a vial of pain) in precisely the same ‘entertainment’ medium as it reports amusing trifles or stories of beauty, justice or courage (A vial of hope…/In the light they look the same)

I think the meaning is something between these. In an interview Regine said that she thought of the title when she saw a church with a neon sign.[5] But there are themes of Television and consumerism as well. I think, fundamentally, they are decrying the contamination of religion in general and Christianity in particular with the more vapid aspects of our culture.

The king's taken back the throne
The useless seed is sown
When they say they're cutting off the phone
I tell 'em you're not home

No place to hide
You were fighting as a soldier on their side
You're still a soldier in your mind
Though nothing's on the line

Who's gonna throw the very first stone?
Oh! Who's gonna reset the bone?
Walking with your head in a sling
Wanna hear the solider sing:
"Been working for the Church while my family dies
Your little baby sister's gonna lose her mind
Every spark of friendship and love will die without a home"
Hear the soldier groan "We'll go at it alone.

This is the most obvious Rorschach of the album. Many think it is about Bush and Iraq and the idea of a Holy war. I think that is pretty likely. If I could employ the hermeneutic of analogy
[6] it fits in with the larger theme of contaminating Christianity with the dark institutions of our world…in this case, politics.

But this interpretation does not seem to account for all of the themes. And so since I have nothing else regarding an ‘authorial intent’ interpretation, let me give you some reader response.

This song reminded me of the many soldiers I know
[7] that subsequently went into the ministry.
The line "Been working for the Church while my family dies” also conjures the image of my broken propensity to put the programs of the church above my responsibility to be emotionally and temporally available to my family. I actually think this second point fits into my hypothesized, overall theme, of human institutions as impediments to faith. I love the Church,
[8] but the church’s programs can undermine its mandate.

"Antichrist Television Blues"

I don't wanna work in a building downtown
No I don't wanna work in a building downtown
I don't know what I'm gonna do
Cause the planes keep crashing always two by two…

Dear God, I'm a good Christian man
In your glory, I know you understand
That you gotta work hard and you gotta get paid
My girl's 13 but she don't act her age
She can sing like a bird in a cage
O Lord, if you could see her when she's up on that stage!...

Wanna hold a mirror up to the world
So that they can see themselves inside my little girl!

Do you know where I was at your age?
Any idea where I was at your age?
I was working downtown for the minimum wage
And I'm not gonna let you just throw it all away!
I'm through being cute, I'm through being nice
O tell me, Lord, am I the Antichrist?!

This is, without a doubt, the most disturbing song on the album. The interpretive key is
that it used to have a working title ‘Joe Simpson.[9]’ If this is true the line “So that they can see themselves inside my little girl!” is beyond disturbing.
Like the political interpretation of Intervention, this track paints a picture of a man who uses his faith to justify, or even encourage him to throw his daughters under the machine of our celebrity culture.

My Body’s a Cage

I'm standing on a stage
Of fear and self-doubt
It's a hollow play
But they'll clap anyway…

I'm living in an age
That calls darkness light
Though my language is dead
Still the shapes fill my head

I'm living in an age
Whose name I don't know
Though the fear keeps me moving
Still my heart beats so slow…

My body is a cage that keeps me
From dancing with the one I love
But my mind holds the key

You're standing next to me
My mind holds the key

Set my spirit free
Set my spirit free
Set my body free

To me, the most obvious interpretation of this is a longing to be free of moral corruption. In Paul’s words:

1Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. 2Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, 3because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. 4For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.

There is very little doubt in my mind that that is eisegesis based on my perspectival biases. Yet for lack of a better interpretation I am going to go with it, making My Body’s a Cage my favorite track.

[1] The band is built around a husband wife team of Win Butler and Regine Chassagne, is based in Quebec and is known for nearly orchestral arrangements. Both Funeral and Neon Bible were nominated for Grammys
[2] Not the actual tails, they are far too chewy. This is a version of fried dough we used to get every time we went to ottowa on family trips which was more than anually
[3] Canada’s first dollar coin had a loon on it so they named it ‘the loony.’ When the two dollar coin came out it was just an exercise in theme and variation.
[4] The study and practice of interpretation.
[5] My favorite part of this interview is when Regine talks about the church the bought to record in and says ‘It is funny that they get turned into condos where no one speaks to their neighbour. Nobody even knows who lives next door!’
[6] This is an interpretive method that suggests that if a certain pericope proves resistant to interpretation you should, at least, bound your interpretation by the themes of the larger work. Of course the problem with the hermeneutic of analogy is that if you get the overall theme wrong you will find many pericopes difficult to harmonize and will just impose your erroneous interpretation on them…which I may very well, in fact, be doing here.
[7] I became a Christian at an on base youth ministry at Ft Drum in Northern NY. Much of my early spiritual development was overseen by mentors that received much of theirs from the West Point Navigators chapter.
[8] I will post on this idea soon.
[9] The ex-pastor single parent father of Jessica and Ashley


JMBower said...

I love that one could argue that "While I found the hyperbole overstated," is itself an understatement:)

Great review, an interesting angle to look at it from. I will have to go back and give them another listen. I had chalked neon bible up as being overrated for anyone but the crowd, but I think I didn't really give it much of a chance since it didn't immediately appeal to me on listening.

I have been having a crisis of music like that as I've grown older...without the endless free time of youth, and as my plug is farther and farther from being conected to the pulse of the new, I find myself debating over whether I have the time and energy for really getting into new stuff that doesn't immediately grab me. The kind that you have to work for.

Luckily I have eloquent friends who I can rely on to hook me into the ones I missed on the first drive-by.

stanford said...

I couldn’t agree more. I have a friend with this theory…that our favorite music will be the music that was popular when we were in high school. I am either a counter example or the exception that proves the rule. Early 90’s pop is easily the worst music of all time. The current age of inde- bands and distributed production is the golden age. But the same fragmentation that makes this era so good also makes it difficult to enjoy because there is a higher chance of bands I love existing but a lower chance of me finding them.

I have found a good way to optimize the evaluation process, but I still just metabolize that much.