|Hey Orpheus! Don't turn around too soon. Just wait until it's over. Wait until it's through.|
The backdrop of AF's narrative, of which they only follow in the loosest of senses, is the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Here, (according to the source material) the young man Orpheus, gifted beyond any mortal in the musical arts, woos and marries Eurydice, only to have her die by snake bite on their wedding day. Orpheus follows Eurydice to Hades where he charms the gods of the underworld through his music, convincing them to release her on the condition that she has to follow behind him until they both cross to the other side and that he cannot turn around even once or she will vanish. The tragedy ends with Orpheus turning around just as he has crossed over the river leading out of the land of the dead, failing to realize Eurydice has not yet made it through. She vanishes right before his eyes, a brief tragic tale of love won and love lost.
Arcade Fire have spread the universal themes of this narrative out over the course of 5 songs on disc 2 of Reflektor, from "Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice) to "Supersymmetry", with "Here Comes the Night Time II" acting as a prologue to the disc. Love is not guaranteed to any of us and when love does come it is often fleeting. Some of us, then, are left to live in the aftermath (or "afterlife", if you will) of a relationship. "Love is so short, forgetting is so long," as Pablo Neruda has said, a lament on display on disc 2's closing songs "Afterlife" and "Supersymmetry". The disc is a prolonged meditation on what it means to find someone and then be forced to live without them. How does one go on and what are they left with in the absence of their beloved?
But how might love end in the first place? How do we know when it's "over" and it's time to move on? Arcade Fire give 3 answers to this question within "Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)" the first of 2 songs specifically dwelling on the myth, culminating in "It's Never Over (Hey Orpheus)".
The answer is simple really. Relationships end because of
a person within the relationship, and
actual physical death itself.
These causes are made manifest through 3 "awful sounds" within the song. Let's look at them in turn, reflecting on each as they pass us by.
First, in looking at society, we must connect the opening and closing lines of the song together:
You and I were born in a little town
Before the awful sound started coming down
We know there's a price to pay
For love in the reflective age
I met you up upon a stage
Our love in a reflective age.
It is apparent something about the day and age in which they live has made their relationship impossible to keep alive and that whatever was oppressing their culture at large had made its way to their small town, an "awful sound...coming down." The narrator also describes whatever is happening to them another way, calling their era the "reflective age", which echoes lines from the album's eponymous opening song "Reflektor": "Trapped in a prison/in a prism of white/alone in a darkness/darkness of white/we fell in love, alone on a stage/in the reflective age." Win Butler or the narrators on Reflektor never make explicit what is happening in this "reflective age," although there are some hints. Based on the stories of disc 1 this is an age of conformity where outsiders are not welcome and it is also an age of passive reflection. The "normals" are the ones who do nothing. They only reflect and are thus only reflektors; they reflect other things but are non-entities themselves. All the non-normals fail to fit in because they act and move and declare their existence by doing so, causing them to stand out uncomfortably from the reflecting crowd.
And so, here on "Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)" we have a young man pursuing his love, but the society within which he is pursuing her has rendered his love mute and inert. The awful sound coming down has drowned out the beautiful music of his love, which the Orpheus of the myth certainly would have made for his Eurydice. The beautiful sound of his music is dissipated by the awful sound of the reflective age. He pleads with her over and over again to leave their town, leave their society, but it's too late. There is a price to pay for love in their reflective age.
And as it is in the parable, so it is in real life. I ask you, the reader to extrapolate here, all the ways our societies make love all but impossible for lovers: through it's technologies, media outlets, economic status levels, racial/ethnic identities, etc. Arcade Fire give us the parable so we can fill in our own blanks.
But then another "awful sound" covers Orpheus: Eurydice's silence toward him:
But when I say I love you
Your silence covers me
It's an awful sound
Apparently she doesn't even want him, no matter what blockages society puts in the way of their relationship. She doesn't desire him to begin with. And thus we learn that relationships have to be mutual; that two people have to meet together and form a union. Orpheus' love alone is not enough. If she doesn't pursue him back there is no relationship to be had. This is the awful sound of silence; of being rejected by someone you love (or at least think you love).
But wait. Does she reject his love of her own volition or has the reflective age damaged her? This might be implied within the song. Orpheus would do anything to take away her pain (the cause of which is left unexplained), to help her get over, to help her make it through, but for whatever reason she has grown deaf to his love. The awful sound of the reflective age has distorted the beautiful sound of his love for her. And so she can never be his. And yet he keeps trying, even chasing her into the afterlife, trying to resurrect both her and his relationship with her.
And so our last "awful sound", is the most resounding of all:
eventually, all relationship come to an end because people die:
You fly away from me
But it's an awful sound
When you hit the ground
It's an awful sound
When you hit the ground
Eurydice has been bitten by the snake. Now she's gone. Now she's been taken from him. Even if society hadn't made their love impossible, even if she had in fact wanted him as well, even still they eventually would have been separated through death. This third end to the relationship was inevitable, no matter how or when.
We all die in the end and with it the memory of our lives together. The residue of a deceased lover lingers for years, hovering within us, everpresent and yet ungraspable: I saw you there, standing in the doorway. I called your name and you weren't there...
In the end none of these deaths take precedent over the others, as the song "Afterlife" makes clear. No matter how a relationship ends, a death occurs, sometime spiritual, sometime physical, and sometimes both.
These themes are all mysteriously reflected in an earlier Arcade Fire song, "Keep the Car Running" off of Neon Bible. I say mysteriously because it would seem Win Butler intended to use the Orpheus and Eurydice story as a backdrop all along:
There's a weight that's pressing down
Late at night you can hear the sound
Even the noise you make when you sleep
Can't swim across a river so deep
"Keep the Car Running" seems to be sung by a more paranoid Orpheus-like figure, a man in fear of being taken away and taken from his love, and thus they must "keep the car running" just in case they need to make a made dash away together, just as Orpheus suggests in "Awful Sound".
And so we find the characters in all these songs running away from death in all its forms, prolonging the inevitable. These are characters fighting for the fleeting moments of life: Please, just one more minute with you. Please, don't go yet. They have actively pursued love and their Beloveds, even though they know both can and will vanish in a moment. At least they've done this much. At least they didn't let life just pass them by while they watched on.
These are all awful sounds but through it all they hope:
I know there's a way
We can leave today
Think it over and say
"I'm never going back again"
Even though they both know, it'll all be over too soon...
Maybe, just maybe they will make it over, they will make it through, and together.
Other articles on Arcade Fire:
The Explanation and Inspiration Behind Aracade Fire's Reflektor
Wake Up! Uncovering Arcade Fire's Grand Narrative
Reflektor: A Listening Guide
The Reflected Lyrics of Arcade Fire's Reflektor: A List
6 Possible Meanings to Arcade Fire's LGBT-themed "We Exist"
Continual Themes and Subjects in the Work of Arcade Fire
Arcade Fire Songs Mentioning Light, Darkness, Mirrors, and Reflections