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March 2, 2015

Brother of tall basketball man from The Arcade Fire records good song about ISIS

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Will Butler, who looks very much like his brother Win. Their names are also very similar.

Will Butler, who looks very much like his brother Win. Their names are also very similar.

Will Butler is not the first Butler you think of when you think of the 113-piece Canadian rock band The Arcade Fire. That would be his brother Win, a tall man (7’1″)who is very good at shooting 3-pointers and pretty good at the sport of basketball. (Win is also the band’s frontman and principal songwriter.) But Will has been putting out his own music for quite a while and his first solo album Policy drops next week from Merge, the world’s greatest record label. Last week, Butler released five songs, each inspired by stories in the Guardian, in partnership with the British newspaper.

On Friday, Butler released “By The Waters of Babylon,” a poignant reflection on ISIS‘s destruction of artifacts housed in Mosul’s central museum. Here’s an excerpt from the Guardian story:

Islamic State militants ransacked Mosul’s central museum, destroying priceless artefacts that are thousands of years old, in the group’s latest rampage which threatens to upend millennia of coexistence in the Middle East.

The destruction of statues and artefacts that date from the Assyrian and Akkadian empires, revealed in a video published by Isis on Thursday, drew ire from the international community and condemnation by activists and minorities that have been attacked by the group.

Butler had this to say about the song:

The words to today’s song are taken from Psalm 137. It’s a song of sorrow and rage from the mouth of a refugee whose city has been destroyed. The sorrow portion of the psalm is extremely famous and often quoted – ”How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” The rage portion of the psalm is less often brought up – “O daughter of Babylon … happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth they little ones against the stones.”

I can’t imagine the sorrow and rage of the people whose lands have been overrun by Isis, whose family and friends are murdered, whose culture is being destroyed.

This song is not a policy prescription. The last lines should evoke horror. But the emotions behind the words are ancient and real.

Mosul is a part of our heritage, part of the world’s heritage, and the loss of its history is heartbreaking.

If you like The Arcade Fire (Hi mom! Hi Dad!), you’ll like “By The Waters of Babylon.” If you’re largely indifferent, you’ll definitely find it to be “not terrible,” though I am largely indifferent and quite liked it. If The Arcade Fire is not your thing, it will probably not be your thing. In any case, it’s an impressive work, given the constraints Butler was working under and, more importantly, it highlights an incredibly important story: ISIS’s destruction of the cultural and literary heritage of Iraq, Syria, and humanity as a whole. We wrote about ISIS’s bombing of Mosul’s public library last week.

UPDATE: This article originally stated that Win Butler made the ISIS song because I am sick and illiterate.

Alex Shephard is the director of digital media for Melville House, and a former bookseller.

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