My week with the Arcade Fire last January will be touched on in an article for AOL next week. In the meantime, here's a review of an album I've had the immense pleasure of immersing myself in for two months now.
Cheeseball ending, I know.
Arcade Fire – Neon Bible (Merge)
When your first album sells half a million copies—independently, no less—there’s an acute danger of everything changing for the worse by the time you finish the follow-up. For most bands, this means a variety of potential pitfalls. At the top of the list would be a capitulation to expectation rather than furthering your original vision.
Arcade Fire are not ‘most bands.’ For starters, they’ve stayed independent and produced the album themselves: two decisions that tie in directly with the fact that Neon Bible maintains the mystique that was so central to the sonic success of 2004’s Funeral.
There’s obviously a bigger budget in play, and they’ve upped the fidelity while still managing to break all the rules of modern hit radio, While still very much a rock record, the world of Neon Bible is one where all the lines bleed into each other, alien sounds hover in the background, traditional instruments sound otherworldly, and you never can tell if what you’re hearing is a human voice, an orchestra, a guitar or a synth. Hell, it might even be a hurdy-gurdy or a treated mandolin.
When it comes to certain sounds, however, there’s no mistaking that they’re playing a massive pipe organ on “Intervention” and “My Body is a Cage,” or that they’ve employed an old-world orchestra (from Budapest, no less) to add to the grandeur of “No Cars Go” and “Ocean of Noise.”
Other big bands would use these tools simply because they can, and then compress these sounds in the mix, making them indistinguishable from any non-descript synth patch. Here, however, the physicality of the acoustics is profoundly evident—which, for a band whose principle strength has always been their live show, makes the bombast more intimate and undeniably more powerful.
There are good reasons why Bruce Springsteen and U2 are outspoken Arcade Fire fans, and on this album’s finest moments, these Montrealers easily manage to match the majestic grandeur of their musical forefathers, likely teaching them a few youthful lessons in the process.
But knowing what kind of stadium-size expectations are being heaped upon Neon Bible, it’s almost as if the Arcade Fire wanted to subvert those by placing their weakest three songs off the top of the disc. “Black Mirror” sounds like a b-side of “Rebellion;” a similar pulsing beat is awash with bended guitar notes and ghostly backward backing vocals that substitute for a serious hook; it’s not until the orchestra comes in two thirds of the way through, playing scales, that the song offers a remotely memorable moment. “Keep the Car Running” doesn’t fare much better, and the hushed title track evaporates after a fleeting two minutes. Intentional or not, those three tracks do a brilliant job of deflating the crushing hype the Arcade Fire never asked for in the first place.
But as soon as the pipe organ announces “Intervention,” a hymn-like wartime folk song, the curtain finally rises and the show truly begins. From that point on, Neon Bible is a gripping thriller, right up to the point that the same pipe organ ends the whole affair on a terrifying suspended chord, at the conclusion of “My Body is a Cage.” In that song, Win Butler asks repeatedly to be set free, but the way that chord lingers and decays, his fate sounds less than optimistic, frozen in a state of uncertainty and questioning.
It’s a mood that is underscored by the lyrics throughout, which paint a portrait of a volatile, uncertain world, ruled by delusion and deception, framed by security cameras and pyramid schemes. Forgiving and forgetting isn’t an option. Families and countries are left behind. Illusions and greed determine our fates. Names are unspoken. Bombs are falling. Black waves are rising. It’s too bad their labelmate M. Ward already used the album title Post-War.
It’s a marked contrast to the neighbourhood portraits and familial self-reflection of Funeral. If that album was about coming to terms with concepts of family and home, Neon Bible is about leaving home and trying to make sense of what the world reflects back to you (“Black Mirror”)—which, more often than not, is a world of twisted theology, crooked politics, and disasters both natural and man-made folly. An “Ocean of Noise,” indeed.
Even if that doom and gloom colours nearly every lyric, thankfully it isn’t the predominant musical mood here. The revamped “No Cars Go” proves exactly what the addition of dextrous drummer Jeremy Gara has done for the band, by taking a tricky, relentless rhythm and upping the tempo and intensity. It’s the one track where optimism reigns, a promise of sanctuary away from the horrors waiting at the windowsill. Tellingly, it’s also the oldest song on the album. The closing, wordless vocal chorus builds to a rapturous climax as the orchestra circles around it, the kind of transcendent musical moment most artists can only fantasize about “between the click of a light and the start of a dream.”
Equally joyous is “The Well and the Lighthouse,” which inverts the structure of Funeral’s “Crown of Love.” That song started as a stately three-step and erupted into a disco closer; this one begins as a thumping, insistent rock number before collapsing into a woozy waltz.
All the stops are pulled out for “(Antichrist Television Blues),” which loads up a 12-bar blues progression with the following: a gospel choir, tap dancing, an omnichord, an insane guitar solo that sounds more like Régine Chassagne screaming through an effects pedal, massive handclaps, violins that swirl and swell into the stratosphere, and a piano that sounds like it was lifted from ABBA’s “Dancing Queen.”
On top of all this Spectoresque splendour, Butler loses his breath and buries his voice under reverb while snarling through the album’s longest set of lyrics, about a Faustian father praying for a progeny whose stardom will liberate him from his humdrum suburban existence. For a band that spent the last year trying to avoid the public eye, this is the one time the perils of fame surfaces as lyrical material—another sophomore cliché successfully sidestepped here. Fortunately for all of us, Butler is simply not vain enough to use his second album to vent about his own celebrity (see: Bloc Party).
Comparisons to Funeral are inevitable, and one knock against the new material is that it largely lacks the singalong melodic lines that defined earlier triumphs like “Rebellion,” “Tunnels,” “Haiti” and “Power Out”—the eight-bar hooks that are entirely independent of the verse or chorus melodies, the ones that curiously become soccer chants in the hands of a hungry live audience, who continue to sing them long after the band’s actually concluded the song.
Other than “No Cars Go,” the only time that happens here is at the end of the ominous “Black Wave/ Bad Vibrations,” which begins as a buoyant new wave ditty about escape, and collapses into a fearful coda with descending glockenspiels, crashing guitar chords and thundering drums. Weaving its way around this is a captivating chorus that could be a choir from a Morricone soundtrack—perhaps a cross between The Mission and one of his Italian horrors.
Just like any other kind of bible, this one is a lot to absorb: sometimes too literal, sometimes too opaque, and hard to grasp at first. Most importantly, it’s certainly not another version of Funeral or even an extension of it. It has its own story to tell, its own mysteries to be discovered. Their lightning blots are still aglow, no fear of being drowned out by the radio.