Ten years ago today, Arcade Fire released the final single from their groundbreaking sophomore release, Neon Bible. The song? No Cars Go. While the album was thematically dark and despairing, No Cars Go, the penultimate track, was full of life, energy, and hope. That is not meant as a critique of either the album or the song. I love both. But the contrast was clear. It was unmistakable for those that had ears to hear.
While this is in no way meant to be comprehensive, a little background information is probably needed about Arcade Fire for the conclusions I draw to have any lasting value. Arcade Fire is an indie rock band from Montreal, Quebec. They have released five studio albums. Their sound is eclectic, mixing classic rock and roll with electronica, disco, indie, and boisterous anthems. Thematically, they infuse their songs with a “voice crying out in the wilderness” sentiment. There is a prophetic urgency to their lyrics, decrying greed, religion, and any other aspect of modernity they find troublesome. With piercing clarity and exacting specificity, they denounce society’s constant grasping for more, more, more. As often as not, their barbs are aimed at themselves as much as anyone else.
When I reviewed the album Neon Bible over ten years ago, I used words like haunting, damning, anxious, angry, and hypnotic to describe what I heard. I was so taken by that album, I poured out 2,000 words in an attempt to grapple with it. Listening to it again more recently, I stand by my initial reaction. The album is dark and brooding. It’s angry and accusatory. It’s full of rage, confusion, and hopelessness. It’s within that context that I fell in love with No Cars Go.
I love everything that comes before No Cars Go on Neon Bible. I love the questions. I love the razor sharp criticism of America, Christianity, and the ungodly union of faith and money. I love how pointed it all is. It is powerful and challenging. At its best, it is convicting and a conduit to self reflection and change. Yet after nine songs the band makes a dramatic turn. Instead of leaving the listener hopeless, they opt to throw caution to the wind and dive head first into a song that in some ways is the most hopeful and optimistic song I have ever heard.
Sometimes, one song can make all the difference in the world. Perhaps because they wrote No Cars Go a few years earlier, there is less despair and more optimism. Perhaps, deep down, they still believed that somewhere, some time, some place, things can and will be better than they are now. Lyrically, No Cars Go is deceptively simple – It almost feels silly and childish. And because of that, I could see some listeners just overlooking the spiritual depth of this song. The song begins whimsically; playfully. When the band yells “Hey!” it would be easy to think they are just having fun; that this song is not meant to be taken as seriously as everything that has come before. I believe that line should be seen as a passionate attempt to get our attention.
The crux of the song is that they know a special place where no cars can go. It is that simple lyrically. No plains, trains, automobiles, submarines, or spaceships can get to this place. You can almost see it “between the click of the light and the start of the dream” and they urgently invite everyone to come with them. When the triumphant denouement begins, the music swirls, elevating the song to a transcendent level. Lead singer, Win Butler exclaims, “little babies – women and children – old folks – Let’s Go!” The accordion and keyboard flow in and around each other. The drums methodically build to the climax. When the horns come in, and the bass takes that rhythm the drums started to a more intense level, it takes your breath away. Then, they unleash heaven. We “don’t know where we’re going,” but we have to go. They tap into something so human, so urgent, so eternal. A choir of singers joins the band and the music swells to a crescendo of pure spiritual longing. Hyperbole, probably. Do I believe every word, absolutely.
No Cars Go is further proof that God has placed “eternity in our hearts” as image bearers. We long for more. We long for Eden, for paradise, for the Kingdom. Most of us don’t even realize it. I’m not convinced Arcade Fire even understands this longing they are desperate to see realized. Yet God will make His name known and His truth heard even through the voices of fallen, broken, unbelieving vessels.
Ten years ago today, Arcade Fire released No Cars Go. I am thankful that Arcade Fire is seeking, asking, and knocking. They still haven’t found what they are looking for, but it is clear that their questions are pointed in the right direction. Though their vision is clouded and veiled, it points to a place where God will live among his people. A place where He will wipe every tear from our eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things will be gone forever. He will make all things new in this place where no cars go.