Pop Music For The Present Age

Andrew Sullivan —  Nov 12 2013 @ 7:42pm

In a recent interview, Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler divulged the unlikely influence behind the band’s new album, Reflektor – the 19th century Christian philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard:

I studied the Bible and philosophy in college and I think in a certain sense that’s the kind of stuff that still makes my brain work. There’s an essay by Kierkegaard called The Present Age that I was reading a lot that’s about the reflective age. This is like in [1846], and it sounds like he’s talking about modern times. He’s talking about the press and alienation, and you kind of read it and you’re like, “Dude, you have no idea how insane it’s gonna get.” [Laughs.] …

It reads like it was written here, basically. He basically compares the reflective age to a passionate age. Like, if there was a piece of gold out on thin ice, in a passionate age, if someone went to try and get the gold, everyone would cheer them on and be like, “Go for it! Yeah you can do it!” And in a reflective age, if someone tried to walk out on the thin ice, everyone would criticize them and say, “What an idiot! I can’t believe you’re going out on the ice to try and risk something.” So it would kind of paralyze you to even act basically, and it just kind of resonated with me — wanting to try and make something in the world instead of just talking about things.

Paul Elie digs up the relevant passage from The Present Age:

A Revolutionary Age is an age of action; the present age is an age of advertisement, or an age of publicity: nothing happens, but there is instant publicity about it. A revolt in the present age is the most unthinkable act of all; such a display of strength would confuse the calculating cleverness of the times. Nevertheless, some political virtuoso might achieve something nearly as great. He would write some manifesto or other which calls for a General Assembly in order to decide on a revolution, and he would write it so carefully that even the Censor himself would pass on it; and at the General Assembly he would manage to bring it about that the audience believed that it had actually rebelled, and then everyone would placidly go home—after they had spent a very nice evening out.

Jon Pareles offers more context for the big ideas behind Reflektor:

The album’s lyrics allude to Kierkegaard’s ideas about a “reflective age,” when passion and story line have been replaced by ambiguity and passive contemplation. And they trace a loose plotline similar to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice: the musician who plays songs that are so beautiful that they persuade Death to give his lover a second chance, though the musician will only lose her again. (Auguste Rodin’s statue of Orpheus and Eurydice is on the album cover.) The songs move through love, rebellious self-affirmation, a struggle to stay together and, at the end, a ghostly mourning. Six minutes of wordless sound at the end of the album, in billowing, burbling, sustained loops reminiscent of Terry Riley’s late-1960’s compositions, may be a glimpse of an eternal next world.