Contemporary music contributes directly to the formation of contemporary worldviews. Whether it is political ideology, interpersonal relations, or your general view of society, music makes you who you are. Throughout the past century, the development of music has always been parallel to specific social transitions or situations. The exportation of punk to the United Kingdom went side by side with national workforce conditions, urban culture, and protest. The greatest concert festival in history featured Jimi Hendrix's historic, provocative performance of the American national anthem as a form of protest against the Vietnam War.
The same goes for religion. Different indicators depict different trends in the United States. While there is a trend away from traditional doctrines and belief, others claim there is a need for more religion in our lives. As thoughts change, so does music.
As millennials begin to reshape society's view on religion, popular musicians have the power to make us understand what leads to faith, doubt, and disillusionment. These seven musical artists have contributed to contemporary debate over faith and religion, reflecting the philosophical and institutional significance of belief in the world today.
1. Arcade Fire
Following the great success of Funeral, Arcade Fire released their second album in 2007. While their record became popular thanks to the hit Keep the Car Running, the album was named after a song that fostered strong musical reviews, both for and against it.
Strong reactions came out of Arcade Fire's work. Some interpreted the lyrics as the band reaching out "to other reasonable people forced underground by the world's insanity," organized religion. Others instead claimed it also touched on other themes, such as violence and "the falsity of simple labor."
The song is a pure work of art. Mixing orchestra strings to a soft, indie, bass-led sound, the singer's voice lays on top of a reflective, delicate, steady foundation. The piece is definitely a protest against commercialized, "neon" religion. Neon Bible tries to uncover the circularity of the religious claim over absolute truths and morality, as the singer criticizes a rather imperative, discouraging, and suppressive order.
In this case Arcade Fire takes a strong stance against forceful religious indoctrination and the instillation of fear. Their effort should be admired by all, regardless of religious background, as the band refuses to table a mercurial but necessary conversation about independent thinking and personal beliefs.
Also, the video and the album cover are majestic.
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.
2. The Shins
Shortly before Arcade Fire's Neon Bible, another leading band of the indie musical scene was dealing with the release of an album following a long series of successes.
Originally hailing from Albuquerque, New Mexico, James Mercer's The Shins are the icon of a generation of indie songwriting. Mercer proved to be one of the most influential lyricists of the past decade. On top of his main work with The Shins, he developed a fantastic musical project with Gnarls Barkley's producer Brian Joseph Burton through Broken Bells.
While The Shins may be better known for "New Slang," "Simple Song,"
and "Australia," the song "Saint Simon" is a lesser known but incredible source of reflection about the unknown. Filled with biblical allusions, the song utilizes core motifs such as religious literature in order to engage broader themes.
"Saint Simon" points out the difficulty of separating right from wrong and the disillusionment of living without "nursery rhymes" and "mock defenses." While these can be easily interpreted as religious indoctrination, the band is more likely trying to protest the diffusion of any fake illusion that can only ill-equip you as you try to make sense of life.
After all these implements and text designed by intellects
So vexed to find evidently there's just so much that hides
And though the saints dub us divine in ancient fading lines
Their sentiment is just as hard to pluck from the vine.
I'll try hard not to pretend,
Allow myself no mock defense
As I step into the night.
3. Modest Mouse
Along with The Shins and Arcade Fire, during the fall of 2007 another band was producing an important album, called We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank. A few years before the same band released an album that revolutionized the indie music world called Good News for People Who Love Bad News.
Modest Mouse is one of the many great bands hailing from the state of Washington. Their 2004 album became famous mainly thanks to "The World at Large" and "Float On," which you may still hear on the radio nowadays.
Along with these songs, Modest Mouse's "Ocean Breathes Salty" is a very simple reflection on our teleological existence. Disillusioned by hopes and promises of life after death, the singer accuses the listener of wasting life living in a dream, fostering a reflection on lifestyle and conduct before the unknown (or known) destiny we all share.
The song was released as a single along with a music video that shares the same theme. As we keep thinking about what happens after we die we risk forgetting about the lives we are leaving.
Modest Mouse brings our attention back to this concept, through an awesome sound.
Well that is that, and this is this.
You tell me what you saw, and I'll tell you what you missed.
When the ocean meets the sky.
You missed when Time and Life shook hands and said goodbye.
when the earth folded over itself.
and said "Good luck"
For your sake I hope heaven and hell [You missed] Are really there, but I wouldn't hold my breath.
You wasted life, why wouldn’t you waste death?
You wasted life, when wouldn’t you waste death?
4. Biffy Clyro
Scottish rock band Biffy Clyro is no less valuable in terms of songwriting or sound. Founded in 1995, the band released three incredible albums, Puzzle, Only Revolutions, and the recent album Opposites. Lead by guitar mogul Simon Neil and backed by the Johnston brothers for bass, drums, and backing vocals, Biffy Clyro is one of the most relevant rock bands of the past decade.
The band interestingly found a way to merge a more conventional metal "power-chord" sound with innovative rhythms over particular tempos. Fusing strong distortion with soft strings, the band lays the words of its songs over a carefully calibrated harmonics.
In their single "God and Satan," Neil's words surprise the listener by presenting a paradoxical reflection about God's nature. While not doubting the existence of a creator, the lyricist is unsure of the very morality of the system.
This way God, or Satan, or whoever is above or below, becomes a distant deity, "no miracle," and nothing like a "miraculous life." How do we know that our sense of good is God's? The band seems to be saying that perhaps while there may be something beyond our life, it is not what we believe in or hope for.
I talk to God as much as I talk to Satan 'cause I want to hear both sides.
Does that make me cynical?
There are no miracles
And this is no miraculous life.
I savour hate as much as I crave love because
I'm just a twisted guy.
Is this the pinnacle, is this the pinnacle, the pinnacle of being alive?
Now I see the light.
5. The National
One of the greatest bands of our generation, The National recently released Trouble Will Find Me, a new album combining their classic, layered, bass-driven sound to the tenor voice of singer and songwriter Matt Berninger.
This great record featured songs like "Don't Swallow the Cap" and "I Should Live in Salt," which all managed to appear in the band's Lollapalooza performance. Yet, one song, their single, stands out.
While drawing on a very classic sound and recurrently well-calibrated harmonies, "Demons" presents unprecedented situations and lyrics in a typically dark (but not banal) manner. Many reviews focused on the personal relevance it must have had for Berninger. Yet, one theme stands out more than anything else: the inability to rise up to something spiritual and greater, facing a demonic and obscure destiny.
For many believers rising up to the image of God, or a sense of moral decency, is the primary objective in life. But how can a man or woman of faith do so when tied to past failures and tragedies?
As Berninger delivers a formidable introspection, we are drawn into a deep reflection about what it means to be chronically unable to achieve happiness.
Passing buzzards in the sky,
Alligators in the sewers,
I don't even wonder why.
They hide among the underheels,
Huddle with them all night long,
The worried talk to god goes on:
I sincerely tried to love her
Wish that I could rise above it.
But I stay down
With my demons.
6. Mumford & Sons
And here we get to Mumford & Sons' Babel. The band has been wrestling with multiple interviewers wondering about whether the album is a "statement of Christian faith." It most definitely isn't. Hell, Marcus Mumford even came out saying it really "pisses [them] off" to be categorized as Christian, although they admitted they are "fans of faith."
Now, let's get past this petty debate and actually look at their songs, for a change. The label is irrelevant and more attention should be aimed at the great music they released during the past years.
While you may know their latest work best thanks to "I Will Wait," one song that is a true standout is "Roll Away Your Stone." Under the extended metaphor of rolling a stone away from the hole that leads to your soul, Marcus Mumford's rough-around-the-edges voice make us dive into the hardship of opening yourself up to a person again after you have been hurt.
Still, this is not it. The "bridges" that "have been burned" separate the singer not only from another person but from grace itself. Perhaps in an attempt to answer Berninger's question, Mumford suggests that mutual trust can elevate two individuals to a greater connection and spirit.
While this notion for many may only be interpretable through faith, interpersonal relationships remain at the heart of how we interpret our lives and our morality. This notion is strangely similar to that of Graffin, a leading non-theist scholar (and Bad Religion's punk-rock vocalist) who encourages men to search for sense in the way we connect to each other.
Darkness is a harsh term don't you think?
And yet it dominates the things I seek.
It seems that all my bridges have been burned,
But, you say that's exactly how this grace thing works
It's not the long walk home
that will change this heart,
But the welcome I receive with the restart.
7. Vampire Weekend
Now, if our relationships with one another define our faith and beliefs, how do they interact when you lack faith and beliefs? In an original interrogative, Vampire Weekend's one and only Ezra Koenig puts us in a romantic but "godless" situation.
After two great successes with Vampire Weekend and Contra, the East Coast's most elegant indie band released a fantastic record, Modern Vampires of the City. Following their recurrent fusion of classical music, clean high-active guitar, and ethnic percussion, Vampire Weekend shook up its listeners by directly asking them sophisticated questions through culture, creativity, and a single wave of elaborate sound.
Following the celebrated "Diane Young" and "Ya Hey," Vampire Weekend's "Unbelievers" presents a man lacking belief in anything beyond our current lives dealing with the thought of his eventual death through a profound romantic relationship.
With a touch of irony and strong doctrinal allusions to Judeo-Christian teleological notions, Koenig makes atheism or the simple lack of belief romantic and elegant rather than cold and cynical.
Unlike Richard Dawkins' belligerent New Atheism or any contemporary non-religious label, Vampire Weekend's softness and sophisticated music took a fantastic stab at the question without necessarily categorizing the band's members in any specific way. How does love without faith differ from love with faith?
I’m not excited, but should I be?
Is this the fate that half of the world has planned for me?
I know I love you
And you love the sea
But what holy water contains a little drop, little drop for me?
See the sun go down
It’s going on down when the night is deep
Want a little light
But who’s going to save a little light for me?
We know the fire awaits unbelievers
All of the sinners the same
Girl, you and I will die unbelievers
Bound to the tracks of the train.