Tag Archives: Unbelievers

Vampire Weekend Made Me Cry

Vampire-Weekend-Modern-Vampires-of-the-4.21.2013.jph_1

By Lara Apps

Not too many rock or pop songs really tug at my heartstrings (Baroque music is another story; I need a box of Kleenex handy to listen to Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater). The last song I can think of that truly got to me, and still does, is U2’s With or Without You — I think it’s the keening. But Vampire Weekend’s latest album, Modern Vampires of the City, features two tracks that dragged some totally unexpected emotions out of me.

The first song, Unbelievers, has an upbeat sound with a quick tempo and catchy melody. Pay attention to the lyrics, though, and you find this (from Rock.rapgenius):

[Verse 1]
Got a little soul
The world is a cold, cold place to be

Want a little warmth
But who’s going to save a little warmth for me

[Pre-Chorus]
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

[Verse 2]
If I’m born again I know that the world will disagree
Want a little grace but who’s going to say a little grace for me?

[Pre-Chorus]
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

[Chorus]
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

[Verse 3]
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?

If I’m born again I know that the world will disagree
Want a little grace but who’s going to say a little grace for me?

[Pre-Chorus]
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

[Chorus]
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

[Chorus]
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
Wonder if the water contains a little drop little drop for me

The band has said that this is not an atheist anthem; in a more extended comment on the song, lead singer Ezra Koenig says that it is about polarization, the splitting of the world into two, e.g. religion and anti-religion. It’s also, clearly, about trying to fit into such a world. The references to holy water, grace, fire, etc. suggest strongly that the song’s narrator is a Catholic atheist (that is, an atheist who used to be Catholic); however, I think the lyrics could be interpreted more broadly as referring to anyone who is an unbeliever toward any dominant ideology or religion, all of which tend to condemn naysayers. In any case, the lines that I responded to the most when I first heard the song are the pre-chorus and chorus, specifically the line “Is this the fate that half of the world has planned for me?” I remember the hostility of believers coming as a shock when I was younger, and it still saddens me that a large proportion of the people on this planet think I deserve to burn in hell just for opting out of religion. It doesn’t matter how much good I try to do in my life: I’m a lost soul to them.

You would think that this wouldn’t matter to an atheist, since belief in an afterlife tends to get jettisoned along with belief in god/gods. It’s true that threatening an unbeliever with hell is unlikely to be effective in changing their behaviour. Still, though, there’s a moment when you have to come to terms with severing yourself from most of what humanity believes about the world, life, and death. I don’t mean to suggest that atheists are heroic or unique in this; we’re not. But while atheism is liberating, it’s also, at times, a difficult way to relate to the world. Unbelievers captures this beautifully.

The other song is called Ya Hey. Musically, it reminds me very much of U2’s Joshua Tree-Rattle and Hum period for reasons I can’t quite pin down. Here are the lyrics, courtesy of Rock.rapgenius:

[Verse 1] Oh, sweet thing Zion doesn’t love you
And Babylon don’t love you
But you love everything
Oh, you saint
America don’t love you
So I could never love you
In spite of everything
[Pre-Chorus]
In the dark of this place
There’s the glow of your face

There’s the dust on the screen
Of this broken machine

And I can’t help but feel
That I’ve made some mistake
But I let it go

Ya Hey (x3)

[Chorus]
Through the fire and through the flames
(Ya hey x2, Ut Deo, ya hey x2)
You won’t even say your name
(Ya hey x2, Ut Deo, ya hey x2)
Through the fire and through the flames
You won’t even say your name
Only “I am that I am”

But who could ever live that way?
(Ya Hey x2)
Ut Deo, Ya Hey
Ut Deo, Deo

[Verse 2]
Oh, the motherland don’t love you
The fatherland don’t love you
So why love anything?
Oh, good God
The faithless they don’t love you
The zealous hearts don’t love you
And that’s not gonna change

[Pre-Chorus]
All the cameras and files
All the paranoid styles
All the tension and fear
Of a secret career

And I think in your heart
That you’ve seen the mistake
But you let it go

Ya Hey (x3)

[Chorus]

[Middle 8]
Outside the tents, on the festival grounds
As the air began to cool, and the sun went down
My soul swooned, as I faintly heard the sound

Of you spinning “Israelites”
Into “19th Nervous Breakdown”

[Chorus]

[Refrain]
Through the fire and through the flames
You won’t even say your name
Only “I am that I am”
But who could ever live that way?
(Ya Hey x2)
Ut Deo, Ya Hey
Ut Deo, Deo Annotate

This is a song addressed directly to God, expressing the frustration, anger and,
perhaps, grief of the doubter. Like Unbelievers, Ya Hey captures the way
doubting God feels — it’s not a purely intellectual experience if you used to
believe. Robert Leedham expresses this perfectly in his moving post about this

“Rather than dropping oblique reference points every third line, it sees Koenig adopt a magnificently blasphemous posture from start to finish. He is talking to Jehovah/The Almighty/The Big Cheese as the representative of a world of non-believers and hardened cynics. He is demanding to know, ‘When confronted with such global indifference and outright aggression, why you would not announce your existence with absolute certainty?’

Anyone who’s lost faith in religion will have posed this question before. When all was well in my life, bar a series of facial eruptions to rival Mount Vesuvius, it didn’t bother me that I’d never witnessed a shining white light and a voice booming with thespian wisdom. That would arrive in my hour of need, at a moment that required more than biblical vagaries like “I am that I am.

The truly upsetting brilliance of ‘Ya Hey’ is that it recognises this moment will never come. It’s not in God’s nature to announce himself like that. Despite having created Zion, Babylon and the rest of world, he will watch it fall apart without staging an intervention. He will leave you strung out on a hospital bed, incandescent with fear and anger, regardless of what you might consequently think of him.”

So what made me cry? I have to say, the moment I choked up while listening to Ya Hey came as a complete surprise. I was focused on working out the lyrics when this hit me: “Oh, the motherland don’t love you The fatherland don’t love you So why love anything?” The lines are being sung to God, i.e. why should God love anything if no one and nothing loves him; but that line “So why love anything?” struck me as something a doubter might very well say to him or herself. I know I did once or twice in the past. It’s not a happy state of mind.

Not all atheists go through a difficult process of separating from religion; some are lucky enough to be born into unbelieving families, and some weren’t strongly committed to a religion in the first place. My own experience wasn’t traumatic — I would say it was positive, but there were definitely some tough moments (there still are; losing my father, knowing that I would not be seeing him again, felt a lot like being bound to the tracks of a train). If Vampire Weekend had been around when I was in my teens and early twenties, I’d have gratefully adopted these two songs as anthems.

Am I complaining? Do I regret renouncing religion? Absolutely not. What I’m trying to get at in this post is that emotional work is involved in a decision so momentous as changing, or leaving, one’s religion. I’m not entirely convinced that such decisions are truly choices; I think we are compelled to follow the paths that seem true to us. In this sense, then, atheists have a great deal in common with believers.