Arcade Fire is known for music and lyrics that make listeners think, drawing on deep ideas expressed in multiple languages. Their new album Reflektor, out today, is no exception. It’s already been getting lots of attention for its Haitian influences — but there’s another obvious source of inspiration that the band highlights on the album. Two songs, “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)” and “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus),” reference the Orpheus myth. The album’s cover art is a close-up of Auguste Rodin’s 1893 sculpture “Orpheus and Eurydice,” currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In addition, a full-album teaser video the band released in advance of the record dropping juxtaposed the album’s lyrics and images from the 1959 film Black Orpheus.
So, in case you’re a little rusty on your Greek mythology, here’s Orpheus, for your song-intrepretation pleasure:
Orpheus is known as the greatest musician in all of Greek mythology, taught to sing by Apollo himself, and is associated with — and symbolized by — the lyre. His most famous story begins on the day of his wedding to the nymph Eurydice. During the party, a guest got drunk and tried to have his way with Eurydice. As she ran from him, she stepped on a venomous snake, dying instantly. Orpheus, distraught and in no mood to make music, aimlessly roamed the world.
Then, recalling the tale of the goddess Persephone — a woman who was brought to the underworld but was allowed to leave for part of each year because her mother pleaded with Hades — Orpheus decided to get Eurydice back himself. He traveled to the underworld with the idea of singing a song for Persephone and Hades to help his cause. It worked — Persephone and Hades relented and told Orpheus he could bring Eurydice back to the land of the living.
There were some conditions: Orpheus had to go first — and he could not look behind him. He agreed, and began to make his way back to the world of men — but, as he got closer to the surface, he grew impatient. He turned his head to steal one quick glance. There she was. But, in the moment they saw each other, the agreement was broken and Eurydice was swept back to the underworld, where Orpheus could no longer follow. He lived out the rest of his life alone.
The first of the two Arcade Fire songs that directly reference the myth, “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice),” doesn’t have much within the lyrics to draw a parallel to the original story. The words, presumably from Orpheus’ perspective, are about love and end with the lover being gone, but don’t specifically reference the details of Orpheus’ particular love.
On the next song on the album, however, the reference is much more clear: “Hey, Orpheus! / I’m behind you / Don’t turn around / I can find you” begins the song “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus).” The album also contains a song called “Afterlife,” which doesn’t mention the myth but may be a nod to Hades.
(REVIEW: Arcade Fire Shines on Reflektor)
Unsurprisingly, considering it’s a myth about lost love and the power of music, Arcade Fire is not the first band to draw on Orpheus and Eurydice for inspiration. She & Him, for example, mention the story in their song “Don’t Look Back”: “Orpheus melted the heart of Persephone / But I never had yours.”
Another example comes from Andrew Bird, who uses “Orpheo” instead of “Orpheus” — a version of the name more similar to the one best known from the 17th-century Monteverdi opera Orfeo. In Bird’s song “Orpheo Looks Back” he sings “They say you don’t look / ‘Cause it’ll disappear”:
Not that every mention of not looking back is about Orpheus.
Perhaps the most famous, Bob Dylan’s, is advice given for the opposite reason. In discussing the title of the legendary 1967 Dylan documentary Dont Look Back, director D.A. Pennebaker has said that the source of the title was a quote from baseball player Satchel Paige. “Don’t look back — something might be gaining on you,” Paige quipped. The implication that the thing behind you is something bad for you, something chasing you or hoping to surpass you, is counter to Orpheus’ reasons for not looking back.
More recently, the band Belle & Sebastian used the exhortation “don’t look back” in a 1996 song…but their point of reference is obvious, since the song is called “Like Dylan In the Movies.”
Either way, if you remember the story of Orpheus, references like Arcade Fire’s will no longer be all Greek to you.