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Sunday, December 20, 2009

Arcade Fire: Neon Bible


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 Ireland). This is a Church album, see, and the Church relies heavily on symbolism, so two of the most important symbols are established at the beginning: 'Black Mirror' and 'Neon Bible'. The former gives Butler and Co. a general vision of the state of the world; the latter represents the (a)moral law according to which this world is living. The album is thus ruled by two slogans: 'Mirror, mirror on the wall — show me where their bombs will fall' and 'Not much chance for survival, if the Neon Bible is right'. The former is creepy, the latter is correct.

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 Bowie than when they switched to Bruce (much as I liked watching their joint performance with Bowie more than their joint performance with Bruce).

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 Butler, 'don't wanna see it at my windowsill'. Too bad that there is nothing whatsoever that we can do about it.

'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.

If Butler's conscious and primary goal was to promote Arcade Fire to the status of 'Biggest Band of Our Time', he has succeeded: critical reaction was sometimes even more positive than first time around, and just look at the sales — No. 2 on the Billboard? But "isn't it ironic", as Alanis Morissette would say, that the same year has seen Britney Spears' Blackout rise to the same posi­tion, not to mention both records receiving the exact same three-and-a-half-star rating from Rol­ling Stone? If anything, this comparison should only drive Butler to even greater heights of para­noia: does that not signify that most people simply pay no attention to the nature of the art they happen to be consuming, as long as they have something to consume? 'I know a time is coming, all words will lose their meaning' — I guess that time is here already, eh?

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 Butler keeps his ego in control for at least a few more albums; he would never get that far without the collective input of his musicians, and he should realize that very clearly.


  1. God knows, I wanted to write some deep, insightful, meaningful, seminal even, comments on both Funeral and Neon Bible :) Unfortunately, currently I am terribly underwhelmed by the band's recent offering, The Suburbs. It's definitely AF's weakest and longest (16 tracks!) recording to date. These qualities are interrelated to a degree, indeed. But I'll post more thoughts in the appropriate section of this blog. I'm certain you plan to review this album soon enough, so I'll bide my time.

  2. Hey George,

    This is just about your comments on 'Antichrist Television Blues.'

    This is my favorite song of all time. And it's not because it sounds like Bruce Springsteen - I don't even care for Springsteen that much.

    I feel like no one understands the lyrics to this song or no one listens to them. This is the most emotional song I think they've ever done - the only song I NEED to sing along to when it comes on. And I yell until I go hoarse.

    But anyway, if you haven't, you should take a look at the lyrics to the song. I really don't think it's very Springsteenian at all.