Album Review - Arcade Fire, "Neon Bible"

So far the only review I’ve seen online for Arcade Fire’s brilliant sophomore album, Neon Bible, is the one from Rolling Stone. It’s their typical safe, 3 ½ star rating that covers their ass either way, no matter the actual quality of the album. But if you read David Fricke’s review, you’d wonder how it even scored so high. Until the last paragraph it does nothing but point out what Fricke sees as the album’s flaws - its excessiveness, and the “muffled” sound that comes with too much reverb. He claims to not be able “to hear it”. It’s too bad, because he, and the magazine, are missing out on a record that at the very least deserves a far better account, and will most likely wind up being one of the strongest albums released this year.

Funeral, the 2005 Arcade Fire debut, was a record clouded by death, as several band members lost close relatives around its recording. Even still, their was a strong sense of optimism running throughout the 10 songs, and by the time it ended it seemed as if the demons were conquered, or at least set aside. Fans of Funeral probably found themselves yelling along to “I guess we’ll just have to adjust” during “Wake Up”. While not an outright positive thought, it still provided a cathartic sing-along moment, devoted, in its own way, to a sense of hope. That sentiment has turned much more dour on Neon Bible, as fans may find themselves singing along to “every spark of friendship and love will die without a home”. These lines, from lead single “Intervention”, seem to sum up the band’s new world outlook.

Neon Bible is bleak, shrouded in an austere darkness. Lead singer/primary lyricist Win Butler hasn’t given much to grab onto here for those looking rays of light. However, the musical accompaniment his lyrics get is consistently uplifting, as all seven members of the band contribute to make the record even more intermittently driving than its predecessor. In other words, Arcade Fire have figured out what they do best. Nearly every song rises to anthem-status, sounding like they would rather be played in a stadium than a sweaty rock club. If there is something to complain about it’s that the band seems to be operating from its comfort zone, giving us more of the same melodramatic shout-alongs we already knew they could. But, after only 2 albums, the sound has hardly grown old, especially when each and every song is so instantly memorable.

If one song on Neon Bible can be heard as its thesis statement, it’s “Windowsill”. In the song, as on many of the others, Butler is disillusioned with America’s television culture (“MTV, what have you done to me?”), and its leading the world in an unjust war (“I don‘t want to fight in a holy war”), and uses these images coming into his home (“I don’t want to see it at my windowsill”) as a reason to escape from what is troubling him so deeply. By repeating lines such as “I don’t want to live in my father’s house no more” and “I don’t want to live in America no more” Butler is asserting himself away from the institutions that have supposedly been keeping him safe all this time. So too does Neon Bible as a whole, as themes of helplessness and despondency repeatedly surface in the lyrics. There is no solution to it either, only the chance of escaping to a safer place, far removed from society’s ills.

“Keep The Car Running”, “The Well & The Lighthouse”, and “No Cars Go” are all cut from the same aggressive cloth - deceivingly depressing lyrics dressed up as party music. Each pulses dynamically, anchored by a deep bass and drum combo, drenched in reverb, and sometimes filled with horns, accordions, mandolins, and strings. “Intervention”, “Black Mirror”, and “Ocean of Noise” are the mid-tempo entries. They sacrifice none of the drama the faster songs possess, as each rises to its own passionate heights. These songs demonstrate a mastery of atmosphere, sometimes using pipe organ and sound effects to conjure a sinister mood. Best of all though is “(Antichrist Television Blues)”, Win Butler’s frenetic rant against the parents of the stars of American pop culture. He weaves his way through a tale of a father overcoming his own hardships (“working downtown for the minimum wage”) and finally getting the chance to capitalize on a chance at wealth, no matter what the consequences. Over the 5 minutes and 13 verses Butler hardly stops to breathe, coming on like David Byrne imitating mid-60’s Dylan.

So Rolling Stone, you can take your 3 and a half stars and shove ‘em. If there has been an album deserving of 5 stars in recent times, it’s Neon Bible. This could turn out to be a generation defining record, gathering legions of fans believing that there is a safer place, one where “no planes go”. Just keep ignorantly peddling your classic rock and teeny bopper pop to whoever it is that still reads your mag. Us kids know better.

MP3 :: Black Mirror.mp3
MP3 :: Keep The Car Running.m4a
(from Neon Bible)

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