A crescendoing rumble of noise resembling rolling thunder enters, followed by a driving beat that is more insistent than ebullient, and a disquieting, descending two-chord riff, as Win Butler sings sullenly, “I walked down to the ocean / After waking from the nightmare / No moon, no pale reflection,” swirls of strings, piano, and drones enveloping the song more and more, threatening to drown out the melody, before blowing over quickly like a passing storm.
On Arcade Fire’s likeable, yet cautious Neon Bible, Butler and his fellow Montreal cohorts wake up from the quixotic reverie of 2004’s Funeral to find that once the power comes back on, once the sun rises, once those snow tunnels melt, the real world isn’t quite as rosy as they once thought. We see it so often from young bands, that it’s practically a cliché: an ambitious bunch of musicians take on all comers on their first release and sound like world-beaters, but after a protracted spell of life on the road, a seemingly endless number of grueling performances, and everyone from the music media, to celebrities, to bloggers watching your every move, the follow-up is almost always inevitably world-weary. Recorded while the band members were surrounded by death, Funeral chose to focus on life, and the debut album practically exploded with it, greatly transcending the record’s ramshackle, kitchen-sink production. Conversely, while creating a much busier, more dense sound on Neon Bible, the specter of doom looms over every track. Yet despite a somewhat stifled mix, and the fact that Butler’s romanticism has been replaced by moments of bitterness, and in some instances petulance, what makes the new CD a worthy successor is what made us fall for this band in the first place: the music’s unflagging passion.
In keeping with Neon Bible‘s more sober sound, the songwriting is much more streamlined, eschewing youthful vigor in favor of a much more disciplined approach that reflects a much more cynical worldview. The compositions on Funeral often contained curveballs that seemed blatantly arbitrary, but provided such euphoric highs (the codas on “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)”, “Crown of Love”, and “Wake Up”, for instance), that such amateurishness was easily excusable. On the new record, though, the majesty is still there, but the redemption is absent. The gorgeous “Intervention” has us expecting that big emotional explosion Arcade Fire does so well, but for all the pleas for spiritual release (“I can taste the fear / Lift me up and take me out of here”) and the sweeping string accompaniment, the song is unsettlingly subdued, the prayer answered by dead silence, forcing Butler to conclude sullenly, “We’ll go at it alone.”
An American expatriate, Butler finds himself returning to his native country on Neon Bible, and along with not liking what he sees, he notices that the natives are restless, too. His approach comes close to being too blunt on “Windowsill” (“Don’t want to fight in a holy war / I don’t want the salesmen knocking at my door / I don’t want to live in America no more”), but the rest of the band transforms the song from a trite attempt at a folk protest tune into a lavish, cinematic piece, thanks to the bombast of horns and strings, and the propulsive rhythm section of bassist Tim Kingsbury and drummer Jeremy Gara. America’s celebrity culture takes it on the chin during the gentle rockabilly of “Anarchist Television Blues”, the parallels to Baptist minister-turned-teen pop svengali Joe Simpson glaringly obvious (“You gotta work hard and you gotta get paid / My girl’s 13, but she don’t act her age”). Another plea to a higher power is made near the end (“Lord, won’t you send me a sign? / ‘Cause I just gotta know if I’m wastin’ my time!... O tell me Lord, am I the Antichrist?”), only to be met, again, by sudden, jarring silence.
Ocean-related themes, be they metaphorical or literal, are found all throughout the album. “Black Wave/Bad Vibrations” is a wonky, four-minute suite that gets off to a stumbling start as Régine Chassagne sings in the persona of a Haitian refugee over a lively new wave arrangement, but it quickly achieves a solemn majesty during the second half, which is sung by Butler. “There’s a great black wave in the middle of the sea,” he intones, conjuring images of both the 2004 tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. Butler sings of “an ocean of violence / A World of empty streets” in the somber “Ocean of Noise”, which gracefully builds up to a stately outro that echoes the E Street Band at their most restrained (complete with ornate piano chords, and a sturdy backbeat reminiscent of Max Weinberg). The post punk-fueled “The Well and the Lighthouse” further enhances the album’s desolate feel.
Neon Bible‘s strongest song, “Keep the Car Running”, like “Windowsill”, actually flirts with self-parody, with Butler tossing in typical “second album” lines about coping with fame (“Same old city with a different name”, “There’s a weight that’s pressing down”), but the band comes to the rescue once again, creating a rich mélange of mandolin, acoustic guitar, layered percussion, electric guitar drone, and handclaps. Still, despite being such an upbeat song, the mood is more sorrowful than exultant. Respite comes in the form of “No Cars Go” late in the album; originally appearing on the band’s 2003 EP, the song has become a live staple, and makes an encore appearance on the new record, presented with a much tighter, tour-refined arrangement. While a very odd inclusion (thematically, it would have made a much better fit on Funeral than here), its appearance on Neon Bible is nevertheless well-timed, coming at a point where the subject matter and music couldn’t get any more bleak. Something was needed to lighten the mood for a moment, and “No Cars Go” fits the bill adequately enough.
The album’s desperation hits rock bottom on the concluding “My Body is a Cage”, but not before quickly offering us a tantalizing ray of hope. Over a funereal organ, Butler again tests our patience, crooning narcissistically, “I’m standing on the stage / Of fear and self-doubt / It’s a hollow play / But they’ll clap anyway,” but just as we’re rolling our eyes, from out of nowhere, the song suddenly climaxes, the organ chords ascending instead of descending, an orchestra assisting the climb upwards, taking us to the brink, to that top-of-the-rollercoaster moment that has us waiting for the kind of musical payoff we crave, which Funeral gave us in spades, as for the third time on the album Butler begs for redemption, pleading, “Set my spirit free.” And for the third time, the answer is silence. On Funeral, Arcade Fire tried to answer grief with fantasy and joy, with astonishing results. Neon Bible, on the other hand, is like that moment several months after your family member passes away, when the denial fades, and the real, true grief sets in. There are no happily-ever-after codas. Such is life. We go at it alone.
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