ARCADE FIRE: NEON BIBLE (2007)
1) Black Mirror; 2) Keep The Car Running; 3) Neon Bible; 4) Intervention; 5) Black Wave/Bad Vibrations; 6) Ocean Of Noise; 7) The Well And The Lighthouse; 8) [Antichrist Television Blues]; 9) Windowsill; 10) No Cars Go; 11) My Body Is A Cage.
To improve on Funeral is probably impossible. Other bands take years, sometimes decades, to reach that magnitude — or, perhaps, "used to" take years, because, in the age of constant acceleration and violent competition that puts the best theoreticists of social-Darwinism to shame, even minimalist solo artists can no longer allow themselves a growth period, let alone an entity with a bulk as huge as Arcade Fire's. We can only guess, but it is a fairly strong guess: had Funeral not garnered all the rightful accolades, the ensemble would most likely have disbanded by now.
Instead, they started their career with their masterpiece. As much as I want to hail Neon Bible as another one, I am unable to extract the same emotional response. It is a different record, but it is inconsistent, and its message occasionally interferes with its musical content. This is strongly linked to the impression that it is too heavily dominated by Win Butler and his personal vision rather than the band's collective one: not only is Régine all but eliminated from the proceedings (nothing like 'Haiti' to lighten things up or 'In The Backseat' for a helpful shot of gorgeousness), but there are also no anthemic tracks like 'Wake Up' to remind you that there is a strong brotherhood feeling behind the music. If this goes on the same way, Arcade Fire as we know it may not have too many years ahead of it.
Nevertheless, I have no major problems with Win Butler and his personal vision, because I fully empathize. Having dealt with his most personal demons on Funeral, he now makes the music more extrovert, turning from family ("neighborhood") problems to more global matters. Neon Bible was, for the most part, recorded in a local church that the band bought, restored, and converted into a studio, and what kind of an album can you record in a church, of all places? That's right: a record about the end of the world.
If you just want to assess Neon Bible from its purely musical side, you will likely be disappointed: the music per se is not tremendously interesting, and it certainly adds nothing new to the style already shown on Funeral. If your favourite band is The Arctic Monkeys, riding an amphetamine-powered bulldozer to assert life and its values, you will probably hate Neon Bible as boring, depressed shit produced by prematurely geriatric imbeciles. ("How many more years do we have to listen to stupid pretentious white guys singing about the apocalypse?" some people ask on the Web — obviously, the answer is "as many as it takes to reach the apocalypse", which, logically, means fewer and fewer all the time). If, however, you think that the rate at which the planet is sinking into a boiling cocktail of stupidity and cruelty keeps accelerating, Win Butler and his friends will be happy to voice your concerns for you.
What I really like, though, is that they will do it in their own, powerful and relevant, way, and not be nearly as blunt about it as some of their idols (I am thinking particularly of a well-known band from
Musically, the first three songs also form a perfect beginning: they make everything possible to make 'Black Mirror' as bleak and apocalyptic as the lyrics suggest, and the fact that it is so catchy (nursery-rhyme-level catchy, in fact) only makes it all the more scary. 'Keep The Car Running' continues things in a manner that mixes uplifting and paranoid, after which the title track quiets the atmosphere with its melancholy musings upon the fate of mankind (which reminds me that it is the album's only stripped-down number in a sea of raging rock power).
It is only then that Neon Bible starts to somewhat lose me, featuring one mid-fast-tempo roots-rocker after another, similarly arranged and with similar feeling. This is no way to compete for a second masterpiece in a row. I like the grand pipe organ riff of 'Intervention', but it seems to be the only thing that the song is hanging upon, and stuff like 'Ocean Of Noise' and 'The Well And The Lighthouse' do not have even that (although Butler still manages to grab my attention with the anthemic 'lions and the lambs ain't sleepin' yet!' chorus on the latter).
Worst offender is 'Antichrist Television Blues', a clearly obvious Springsteen imitation that is just not Arcade Fire. There is nothing wrong about wanting to sound grand and pompous, and there is nothing wrong with liking or even admiring Springsteen, but the last thing the world needs is for other people, especially talented people, to write songs like Springsteen. It is not ugly or awful; there is just no need for its existence. I liked them more when they were channelling the spirit of
After that low point, however, the record quickly recuperates with another blistering trio. 'Windowsill', a tight protest song that contains the most straightforward lyrics on the record — 'I don't wanna fight in a holy war, I don't want the salesman knocking at my door, I don't wanna live in America no more'; many have emphasized the song's "anti-war" and "anti-Bushist" stance, but it goes far beyond that — 'MTV, what have you done to me? Save my soul, set me free — set me free, what have you done to me? I can't breathe, I can't see... World War III, when are you coming for me?' Blunt, but it hits harder than most punk rock, and it perfectly captures the thoughts and feelings of everyone else who, like
'No Cars Go' is actually a re-recording of one of their earliest songs, and it shows: its colourful, religious escapism fits into the general subject of the album, but is also way too cheerful and optimistic to sit comfortably between two of its most depressed numbers: 'Windowsill' and 'My Body Is A Cage', the latter a grim, organ-driven, bleeding-hearted confession revolving around the infinite mantra: 'My body is a cage that keeps me from dancing with the one I love — but my mind holds the key'. It is a surprisingly theistic conclusion to the album: 'the one I love' is clearly someone or something more power-endowed than Butler's spouse, and his passionate howls of 'set my spirit free, set my body free' as the song thunders into its dark conclusion almost imply thoughts of intentional ending of one's physical and spiritual suffering, if you know what I mean. The last time I witnessed the notions of 'love' and 'death' so closely intertwined, I guess, was while listening to the final aria of Quadrophenia — an album which I am pretty sure must also have been a strong influence on the band as a whole and Neon Bible in particular.
Still I hope, in a fit of naïve optimism, that many more people than just the critics will appreciate the record not because it is a cool thing to do but because they can identify with its philosophy, or, in fact, its religion. Which is enough for me to overlook the monotonousness of its middle lump and concentrate on the beauty and power of its beginning and its end, and to give it a collective thumbs up on the part of the overwhelmed intellect and the subdued soul. I can only hope that