No Cars Go

No Cars Go is the second-last track on Arcade Fire's latest album, Neon Bible. It is my favourite song of theirs, one the few songs to have ever truly moved me, and I'd argue its also their career highlight. I also believe, in the grand arc of Arcade Fire, this song is their most significant and redemptive.

It seems to offer a solution for the absolute mess that Neon Bible's previous nine songs were looking at. For if the impetus behind the elated splendor of Funeral was the magic of childhood and the communal bonds of the 'neighbourhood', most of its imagery inward-looking, then the grandeur behind Neon Bible is a lot less positive, and far more pervasive. The lyrics shift from the personal to the political; the band look out the window they dug their tunnels through as children and realise that everything has turned to shit. Win Butler sums up their mission on Neon Bible:

Take the poison of your age
Don’t lick your fingers when you turn the page
It was wrong but you said it was right
In the future I will read at night in the
Neon bible

Trying to hold up the 'black mirror' of the times, they launch a polemical attack upon religion, media, government, whatever institutions they find in their sights, in an effort to comprehend the dystopia they now face. They retain their epic, electric sound, but this time the music doesn't so much take off as gradually intensify under the weight of the album's themes.

But when No Cars Go rolls around (haha), things once again take off. The song announces itself with a flutter before propelling itself towards the stratosphere, as guitar and drums roll along all the while supported by lifting strings. 'Hey!' yells Win, before he and Reginne join together for the lines:

We know a place where no planes go
We know a place where no ships go

(Hey!) No cars go
(Hey!) No cars go

At this point I'm sitting here listening to it, trying to maintain some sort of critical distance from the track so I can get around to making my point, but I simply can't hold back. The feeling this song gives me is one of the most breathtaking (and I use that word seriously) and exhilarating a song has ever give me. I get swept up in its urgency every time I hear it, and I'm floating. It's so powerful. And I think that's the whole point of the song, for with No Cars Go, the Arcade Fire are offering us a release, a way of leaving behind the nightmare that tracks one through nine waded through.

They are taking us to where "no cars go" - what could be more of a paradise, what could be further from modern worries?

But think about it; this song is less a solution than an escape - because there really isn't a place where no cars, ships, planes, or submarines go - these machines colonise the earth, air and water. On Tiny Cities Made of Ashes, Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse screams "does anybody know a way that a body could get away?" - in a time of pervasive global surveilliance, where are the pure, unbroken spaces?
"If you're looking for an unmarked place, there is no such place" Augie March might reply.

So where does No Cars Go take us? Well there is one place that remains sacrosanct, and that place belongs much more to the temporal ambient of Funeral than Neon Bible - that place is childhood, dreams, memory. Or as Win and Reginne sing towards the climax, "
between the click of the light and the start of the dream" is the only place where no cars go.

It's no coincidence that it is "us kids know" - that the protagonists showing the way out are children. Another layer of significance seems to develop too when you find out that this song was originally recorded for their debut EP, before the dark days of Neon Bible, before even the realisation of adulthood that can be found at the end of Funeral.

In The Backseat
, the only song sang fully by Reginne on their first album, is a beautiful and heartbreaking vignette, of sitting in the car and coming to grips with the passing of time and with it the maturity it brings to yourself, and the things it takes from you as well ("My family tree's losing all its leaves"). I think when you're a child and you're sitting in the backseat you kind of experience that - an overwhelming serenity and feeling of security ("I like the peace, in the backseat"), but also, as you watch the wind push the raindrops back over the windowscreen and the lights flash past, a recognition that everything moves on.

But back to No Cars Go - through this song, Arcade Fire take the present, and fold it in their (both as a band and as children) and our past. And why not regress? Why not focus on the joyous time of childhood when it seems that a solution, or a true physical escape, is likely impossible nowadays?

Because Arcade Fire, whilst they offer us an escape, know that it's only really an imaginary solution, in the purest sense of the word 'imaginary'. And as I said at the beginning, No Cars Go is the penultimate song; Neon Bible actually finishes with My Body is a Cage.

Arcade Fire - No Cars Go

8 riffs:

.albert said...

I love the song as well... I'm really glad they decided to include it on Neon Bible as it was previously only an unreleased B-side which I heard courtesy of a bootleg called the white session.

Anonymous said...

Hey, very nice interpretation of this song. i do think like you do.


Anonymous said...

"I love the song as well... I'm really glad they decided to include it on Neon Bible as it was previously only an unreleased B-side which I heard courtesy of a bootleg called the white session."

It appears on the Us Kids Know EP, as mentioned in this blog.

Untitled No. 4 said...

Got here (a bit late, I know) after deciding to check what other people thought about this song on SongMeanings.com.
I feel that your analysis of the song is closer to what I feel about the song than people over there. I say feel and I mean it -- although I agree we should detach ourselves like you say, I can't ignore the way this song makes me feel, and it's a feeling of elation, of catharsis.

As I feel that Neon Bible has a theme to it I also feel that it would be right to think about as part of the whole (yes, I know it was released on the EP first, but I think it was added to Neon Bible for a reason).

Like you, I feel this song is a roundup of the whole album. The album starts with a nightmare (Black Mirror) and goes through many nightmarish aspects of modern life, but then we are given No Cars Go to wrap up the album as a final hopeful track.

Not surprisingly, the song to me speaks about the moments when we lie in our bed waiting for sleep to take over. I don't know about other people, but when I was a child I used to spend that time exercising my imagination. I used to think of the things I wanted to do, the things I wanted to become, the things I didn't understand, death and the likes, until I was exhausted and fell asleep.

This was my own personal moment where I was completely alone in the world with nothing but my own inner-self, where everything was possible if I could only force myself to imagine it.

Then when sleep slowly took over and the and I used to lose the sense of what was real and what was imagination, which was a very happy moment for me. Then I would fall asleep.

Back to the song: the first part (We know a place where no ____ go, etc), Win and RĂ©gine (father and mother?) share a secret with us, that there's a beautiful place we can go where we leave all our worries of the last 24 hours (starting with a nightmare -- Black Mirror -- and then going through Keep the Car Running to Windowsill, quite dark 24 hours...) and be happy.

Then they tell us where this place is (between the click of the light and the start of the dream).

Then, seeing how hesitant (or sceptical?) we are, Win takes command over the song and the situation, and yells at us to get going (Women and children, let's go!, etc.). I know many people feel like he's talking about a disaster (ship sinking, terrorist attack) and I think it is given in a matter of urgency because it is urgent -- if we live the nightmare of Neon Bible without occasionally escaping to a better place, what will become of us?

The last couple of minutes of the songs with no lyrics ARE the place where no cars go. Well, a musical equivalent of it. The music becomes faster and elates us further and further as we enter this place once again.

And then the Neon Bible day ends in a climax.

Oh, what about My Body is a Cage, I hear you say? Well, welcome to your new Neon Bible day... let a new nightmare begin...

I'm sorry this has been so long but this was going around in my head for a long time now and I had to offload it somewhere I felt was friendly enough.

Lawson said...

Hi Untitled - it seems our readings of this song overlap considerably - except yours is far more nicely and personally related than mine. Cheers for the response.

James Cooley said...

You cats are all right. As a literal dude that struggles to deduce Cake song meanings, I was a bit lost here. These explanations are introspective and get me going. I enjoyed recalling my similar feelings as a child, lying in bed contemplating A LOT. Thanks for the time on this. Great posts.

Yeda said...

i appreciate your writing on this song.

Lawson said...

Hi Yeda, thanks for your kind words. I think this is probably the only post I've ever written that other people have enjoyed!