Arcade Fire Delivers the Sermon on the Mount

Arcade Fire's 2010 album The Suburbs is a commercial and critical success, winning a Grammy for Album of the Year among other accolades. For those who enjoy exploring religious dimensions in poplar culture, this Montreal-based band has much to offer, with clever lyrics every bit as original as their distinctive sound.

Their songs combine an imaginative blend of social commentary with an informed and creative reading of biblical literature (which I attempt to illustrate in a short analysis of their previous album, Neon Bible). The most explicit reference to the Bible in The Suburbs is the warning not to "trust a millionaire quoting the Sermon on the Mount" ("City With No Children"). On one level, the phrase simply indicates things are not what they appear, but I suggest there is more going on with this conspicuous naming of a biblical text. It seems to me that ideas in the Sermon on the Mount lurk in the background of many of the album's songs, not just the one referring to it by name. If we read that ancient homily (Matthew 5-7, with parallels in Luke) while listening to Arcade Fire's The Suburbs, we find it informs their lyrical narratives in subtle ways. This is an example of lyricists using biblical intertexts for artistic, not confessional purposes. Here are a few possible connections between the album and the Sermon.

First, both "texts" share suspicions about wealth. "Ready to Start," for instance, includes the vaguely Dylanesque phrase "the businessmen drink my blood like the kids in art school said," hinting at misgivings about money and authority figures. There is also that warning not to trust millionaires citing the Sermon on the Mount mentioned above. That wealthy individuals would cite that particular passage is ironic; the sermon insists, "You cannot serve God and wealth" (6:24), that the poor are blessed and possess the kingdom of God and that the hungry are blessed because they will be filled (Luke 6:20-21). The particular millionaire in question carries a debt and the singer doubts whether "your righteousness could pay the interest." Quoting the Bible is no indicator of real righteousness (hence the debt) and material wealth does not help make these particular payments. The songs contrast two different forms of wealth and here there is a thematic resemblance with teachings in the Sermon on the Mount (6:19-21):

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

The Sermon also distinguishes real and feigned beauty, contrasting the lilies of the field with the grandeur of royalty: Even "Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these" (6:29). We do not find real beauty, it follows, in the trappings of human achievement, wealth and power that King Solomon represents: "if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more cloth you -- you of little faith?" (Matthew 6:30; cf. "The Suburbs": "move your feet from hot pavement and into the grass 'cause it's already past"). The dangers of wealth and the corruptibility and delusions of the powerful are something children living in the suburbs recognize: "The kids have always known that the emperor wears no clothes but they bow to him anyway" ("Ready to Start"). The emperors in the suburbs -- so emblematic of life in prosperous western societies -- fall short of real beauty just like Solomon.

Second, notice that the light/dark imagery used in descriptions of urban spaces resembles Jesus' sermon in certain respects: "You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid ... let your light shine before others" (Matthew 5:14-16). When measured against this image, the contemporary suburbs Arcade Fire describes are found wanting. In "City With No Children," the song that names the Sermon on the Mount, the singer drives home to Houston and finds, "there was no light that we could see." Also depressing is the language of "Half Light II (No Celebration)," where there is a search for a town "where we could live even in the half-light." These dark places no brighter than "distant stars" ("Suburban War") are very different than that idealized city on a hill that cannot be hid (Matthew 5:14). The lyrics do not dwell on the specific shortcomings of the suburbs but clearly beneath a veneer of respectability, prosperity and order lies dysfunction and emptiness.

Third, young people see the modern world with remarkable clarity in these songs, most of which use the terms children and/or kids and/or include reminiscences about childhood friends and their stifled dreams (like the "kids in buses longing to be free" in "Wasted Hours"). They are equivalent to the traditional blind seer or wise fool who unexpectedly reveals clear thinking and insight to those lacking understanding. Kids see and acknowledge problems (e.g., they "have always known that the emperor wears no clothes") and, unlike most the world, are inclined toward peace. For instance, a neighbourhood "war" among children ends quickly in "The Suburbs" because "by the time the first bombs fell we were already bored." Bringing and end to "war" is not so easy for adults and their nations who rarely grow "bored" with battle. The ideal of children as representatives of peace appears in the video for "The Suburbs," which juxtaposes scenes of youthful innocence and play with military and police action and violence. When the Sermon on the Mount refers to peace, it uses similar language: "Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God" (Matthew 5:9; cf. 19:14: "Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs").

Fourth, the Sermon on the Mount closes with Jesus contrasting a foolish man building a house on sand with a wise man building one on rock. Rain, floods and wind beat on both houses, and the one built on sand collapses while the one built on rock remains (Matthew 7:24-27). These songs suggest that certain ways of living, ones embodied in the sprawl of modern cities, will not endure. When only a child, the narrator of "Deep Blue" saw signs in the suburbs that "something was ending," that a "dead star" was "collapsing." Here, as elsewhere, it is a child who discerns an otherwise hidden reality. In "Month of May," the apocalyptic overtones continue with "the city" hit from above and "a violent wind" that blows the wires away. There is shock in the suburbs "but the kids are all standing with their arms folded tight." They appear to watch without surprise as everything around them collapses because it lacks a meaningful foundation. In "Rococo," which also involves an urban setting ("downtown"), wind blows the ashes down. The term rococo indicates opulence, perhaps alluding again to the allure and destructive nature of wealth because when "modern kids" (cf. reference to the 1970s in "The Suburbs") sing the term repeatedly, the narrator cries out, "Dear God what is that horrible song they're singin'?" Here, as in Matthew 7:27, strong winds represent the collapse of fools' endeavors.

Fifth and finally, various knowing narrators give voice to suspicions about life in the city and its suburbs, suspecting all is not well beneath a façade of respectability. In "Ready to Start," when asked to come out with those knocking on his door, the speaker confesses, "I would rather be alone than pretend I feel alright." A similar contrast between private/public, in/out, interior/exterior appears in the Sermon on the Mount (see e.g., Matthew 6:3-4, 6, 17-18). Here we learn that true piety and integrity is evident not among those who broadcast their respectability (cf. the millionaires quoting the Sermon on the Mount) but in those who show acts of charity, kindness and religious devotion behind closed doors. Suburbia typically accentuates the values of conformity and encourages public displays of wealth, success and conventionality. Through this creative engagement with the Sermon on the Mount, Arcade Fire observes that real beauty is lost in the process.

"Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)" closes The Suburbs on a self-consciously prophetic note. Someone wants the music to end, for the singer to stop being pretentious and conform by punching the clock like everyone else. There is no place for artists/prophets who hold up mirrors revealing weaknesses and flaws. This rejection of artistic commentary is not the only challenge facing the singer. Just as material wealth contrasts with a heavenly treasure far more valuable, so also the sprawl and shopping malls of suburbia offer a kind of light. This, however, is a poor substitute for the light the artist craves. The singer cries out, "Please cut the lights!" of the city.

Artists/musicians need to escape the mire of suburban life, the sprawl with its blinding glare, if they are to perform their prophetic task. This involves depicting the vacuous conditions of modern life. Or, to put it in the language of the Sermon, to announce, "If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!" (Matthew 6:23).