One of my favorite soundtrack albums while writing The Skeletons in God’s Closet was Vampire Weekend’s “Modern Vampires of the City.” In it, Koenig & Co. wrestle with themes like the unstoppable march of time, the inevitability of death, and the hiddenness of God.
Fire is, interestingly enough, a major theme threaded throughout the album. Depending on which song you’re listening to, the flame imagery takes on a variety of different meanings. So I thought it would be fun to trace Vampire Weekend’s fire imagery throughout the album, because:
- It’s a really good album and fun to process as part of the “soundtrack” I wrote the book to;
- The album illustrates, similar to my book, how an image like “fire” can carry a lot of different meanings depending on its surrounding context; and
- The album powerfully and provocatively raises many of the important cultural tensions and questions I wrote the book attempting to address.
So, here we go . . .
Let’s start with “Unbelievers,” the radio hit whose chorus appears to be a revolt against the popular caricature of hell:
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. I’m not excited, but should I be? Is this the fate that half of the world has planned for me?
Most radio listeners probably hear this refrain as a revolt against Christianity, Judaism and Islam (the “half of the world” in the chorus’s last line). Indeed, Koenig did speak of this album as more provocatively “political” than their previous ones. Yet I think a closer look reveals something deeper going on.
The song is laced with irony: the mood is decidedly upbeat and happy against the dourness of the lyrics. And the singer croons for things he’s longing for in the verses that find their fulfillment in “the fire” of the chorus. Consider the following ways the fire fulfills his longing:
- Cold/Warmth: in a “cold, cold” world he has a “little soul” that longs for a “little warmth,” and wonders who will “save a little warmth for me?”
- Death/Grace: in the face of death “bound to the tracks of the train,” he wants “a little place” to remain, but wonders who will “say a little grace for me?”
- Dark/Light: he sees the “sun go down” and recognizes the “night is deep,” but wonders while stepping towards the nihilistic void of cosmic evening “who’s gonna save a little light for me?”
The fire fulfills his longing for a little warmth, light and space against the backdrop of a cold, dark universe. While the lyrics are dripping with irony, Koenig also hints in the climax of the chorus at the narrator’s longing for grace but finding himself unworthy:
- “I know I love you, but you love the sea”: the sea resonates with infinity and douses fire (both like the presence of God).
- “But what holy water contains a little drop, little drop for me?”: he seems to long for grace but find it beyond his unworthy grasp.
So the song seems to both revolt against religion and yet hint at something deeper found therein related to the nature of human longing and desire.
This song became emblematic for me of the popular “underground torture chamber” caricature (see Skeletons, chapter 1). Hearing the song on frequent Portland radio-play reminded me while writing of the misconceptions on Christian teaching I was out to deconstruct and replace with a more robust alternative.
In Hannah Hunt, a couple uproots from home and makes their way across the country, “from Providence to Phoenix”:
- From Providence: a place whose name speaks to God’s provision, nourishment and care;
- To Phoenix: a distant city in a place characterized by desert and desolation.
An imaginative listener might hear Adam and Eve as archetypes in the background, setting out from Eden’s providential garden towards the lure of Babylon that will end in a wasteland (see Skeletons, chapter 14).
Garden imagery opens the song: it opens with “a gardener” whose voice declares (like God?) that some plants move (like people?) The narrator doesn’t believe it, until he and Hannah see “crawling vines” and “weeping willows” on their journey westward.
- The moving plants become a metaphor for the travelers themselves, as the song ends with Hannah weeping in California after they’ve crawled across the country, reminiscent of the “vines & willows” that open the song.
Fire shows up towards the end of the song. The couple has landed in Santa Barbara: they’ve gone as far west as they can go, running into the ocean, and Hannah now cries “amidst those freezing beaches.” The allure of California’s promised golden beaches has now ended in a cold, dark place. So the narrator goes into town “to buy some kindling for the fire.” Meanwhile, Hannah tears “the New York Times up into pieces.”
The flame imagery here seems to resonate with social and relational breakdown. The New York Times’ world events become kindling for the flames, evoking a sense of our world torn up and broken apart (see Skeletons, chapter 2 on the destructive power of our sin setting the world aflame).
On a more intimate level, the couple’s relationship is disintegrating. In what is, for me, the most moving climax of the entire album, the narrator cries:
If I can’t trust you than damn it, Hannah, there’s no future, there’s no answer. Though we live on the US dollar, you and me we’ve got our own sense of time.
The one thing they’ve clung to throughout their journey, each other, is now tearing apart. Their relationship is becoming as fragmented as the world around them. (see Skeletons, chapter 6 on the suburbs as a metaphor for hell: “Downstream of our corporate rejection of God lies not a liberated collective, but rather an isolated, fragmented and atomized humanity.”)
In the midst of their loneliness, the smoldering rubble of the “New York Times” old world keeps them warm (see Skeletons, chapter 17 on the rubble of Babylon). Here, in the distant land where they’ve run so far from the “providential garden,” Hannah weeps and the narrator gnashes his teeth in frustration amidst their loss and relational breakdown (see Skeletons, chapter 5 on Lazarus & the Rich Man).
– – – –
Okay, time to get more speculative, but is the source of the fracture that Hannah wants to go back home? Could Hannah (a popular Jewish name; Koenig was raised Jewish), symbolize someone in his contemporary social scenario reaching back for the God modernity’s tried to leave behind? (Notice how earlier in the song, the narrator tells a “man of faith” that “hidden eyes” can see inside only Hannah, not him. And the scene here resonates with the earlier “Unbelievers” chorus: “I know I love you, but you love the sea.”)
Now on the California beaches, at the end of their “hunt,” she looks upon the presence of the ocean and apparently wants to go back home (to the providential garden?), while he wants to build a fire to sustain their meager existence on the lonely, distant shores of isolation far from home. They both share the same geographic space “on the US dollar,” but are on different temporal trajectories “we’ve got our own sense of time.”
“Ya Hey” is the album’s most direct lament on the distance of God. The title itself, “Ya Hey,” is a playful spin on the Hebrew name for God, “Yahweh.” The chorus draws upon the Israelites experience at Sinai:
Through the fire, through the flame, You won’t even say your name, only “I am that I am” But who could ever live that way?
God reveals his name as “Yahweh” at Sinai, and in the biblical framing this is a sign of intimacy. The context is covenant, a “wedding at Sinai,” where God is bound in union with his people, and his people are brought into “knowing him” (in the Hebrew sense of intimate relationship, not the Western sense of abstract knowledge).
But Koenig’s narrator takes Sinai as an act of distancing, rather than of drawing close. In the midst of the fire and flame, God won’t even say his name, but will only give the abstract, distant, “I am that I am.” “Who could ever live that way?” distant and unknown to a hurting people?
Leaving aside that I think this is the opposite of the point in the Sinai passage (it is God drawing close, not pulling away), there is nonetheless a powerful resonance here of “lament,” even anger, at the hiddenness of God. This chorus speaks powerfully to our broader discontent in a world torn apart where God often seems so distant and unwilling to answer our cry to reveal himself.
Flame seems to speak in this song to the very presence of God. This is similar to Skeletons, chapter 3 which explores fire in Zechariah 2 as an image of God’s protective presence for the good purpose of caring for his redemptive kingdom. But “Ya Hey” takes it in a different direction, as a sign of “destructive” rather than “protective” presence.
The song’s verses speak to God’s people being outcast and rejected: by “Zion [Jerusalem],” “Babylon,” “America,” “the motherland,” and “the fatherland.” God’s people are in exile, unloved and mistreated, and God apparently doesn’t show up (think “the Holocaust” and its broader existential cry for our torn-apart world).
Meanwhile, the Israelites are keeping the sacred celebrations, with their “tents on the festival grounds,” while Yahweh is malevolently “spinning [the] Israelites” into their “19th nervous breakdown.”
Downstream, the narrator observes how this “good God” himself is denounced and maligned, they “don’t love you,” as “the faithless” and “the zealous” together reject the God who has apparently rejected them. Again, while I think the biblical narrative of Sinai moves in the opposite direction, highlighting God’s invitation to intimacy, this song nonetheless speaks to the tension between the cry of our war-torn world and the long-suffering patience of God explored in Skeletons, chapters 13 – 16.
Let’s wrap up with seeing how the image of fire, light and heat is threaded through the rest of the album. The first song on the album, “Obvious Bicycle,” opens with the rising sun:
Morning comes you watch the red sunrise, the LED still flickers in your eyes…
The sun shows up in a couple places on the album. Here in the opening lines, the rising sun’s “natural” light corresponds with the “technological” light of the LED alarm clock, both keeping time as they announce the start of the narrator’s day and marking the onset of encroaching time (the “ticking clock” of time and inevitability of death is another major theme on the album).
In “Step,” the sun shows up again, the context more ambiguous this time but still threaded with themes of relational breakdown and death:
You cursed the sun when it stepped to your girl. Maybe she’s gone and I can’t resurrect her… Everyone’s dying, but girl you’re not old yet.
Next, “Diane Young” (a more light-hearted pseudonym for dying young) warns a reckless youth of his dangerous behavior possibly leading to an untimely death. The song opens with the fire image: the reckless youth has “torched a Saab like a pile of leaves,” the car in flames speaking to the destruction downstream of his reckless behavior. The burning car foreshadows his potential untimely end if he “grab[s] the wheel… holding it tight” and goes “tottering off into that good night.”
“Don’t Lie” follows, flipping the previous song’s theme on its head: dying young now provokes angst with a God who would allow it:
Don’t lie, I want him to know. God’s loves die young, is he ready to go?
In this song, fire is an image for young love: “Old flames they can warm you tonight,” and “the vaults are full and the fire is bold.”
“Everlasting Arms” evokes an internal back-and-forth tension with God. On the one hand, the narrator laments that he “took your counsel and came to ruin” and now cries out “leave me to myself . . . I was made to live without you . . . born to live without you.”
But then he looks up, “full of fear, trapped beneath a chandelier that’s going down.” In this song, the chandelier plays the image of light, heat, flame, and speaks to the encroachment of death and the fear it provokes. It causes the narrator to swing back and cry out, “Could I be made to serve the master? . . . Hold me in your everlasting arms.”
In “Finger Back,” the sun makes another appearance, this time in LA “where the sun don’t ever shine,” alongside a barrage of references like:
Hit me with a canister that’s fired while the soldiers drive away . . . The harpsichord is broken and the television’s fried, the city’s getting hotter like a country in decline . . . I know that I’ve been wicked and the road to hell is wide, cursed by curiosity that made me go inside.
The song ends with the nostalgia for “holy days” and “Jerusalem” (the New York version) and an Orthodox girl falling in love with a (presumably unorthodox) guy, instead of averting her attention to the laminated poster of the “dome of the Rock” (in the Jerusalem that is becoming more and more a distant memory far away in exile).
In “Worship You,” the narrator cries, “We worshipped you, Your red right hand,” with the crimson hand apparently a reference to God’s wrath that has led them into exile, where the cry arises, “In foreign soil . . . will you guide us through the land? . . . Calling for the misery to always be explained.”
Finally, “Hudson” and “Young Lion” close the album as the apparent exceptions, with no explicit references to flame, light or heat. Yet the narrative imagery of the album remains, as “Hudson” speaks to the people scattered in exile with references to the pre-war history and now different approaches to life beyond it. “Young Lion” seems to speak patience to the narrator, “You take your time, young lion,” as he wrestles and processes and grapples with the roots of his tradition. Or could it be taken as reference to the “lion of Judah,” the messianic Jewish hope, “taking his time” with the exasperated patience of a people who’ve waited so long?
Perhaps, consistent with the subtle irony and multiple meanings that mark the rest of the album’s wrestling with God, it could best be received as a combination of both.