Arcade Fire can’t rein in its ambition

[6 March 2007]

By Ben Wener

The Orange County Register (MCT)

By now any ardent Arcade Fire fan clamoring to hear the Montreal outfit’s highly anticipated second full-length effort surely has. Neon Bible isn’t officially in stores and online until Tuesday, but it hasn’t taken much searching to find the whole thing ahead of time.

Though not nearly as creative (or convoluted) as Trent Reznor’s ongoing radical promotional tactics teasing the futureshock of Nine Inch Nails’ coming album Year Zero—including leaving a USB drive containing a new track in a restroom—the run-up to Arcade Fire’s re-emergence has had more enticement than a mere turn on Saturday Night Live.

For weeks pieces of Neon Bible could be heard via a toll-free phone number the band set up (866-NEON-BIBLE, naturally). All this week, the British music rag’s site, has been streaming the album in its entirety. Anyone with the slightest knowledge of torrent-trading, meanwhile, has had access to it for more than a month.

The expected excitement effect has taken hold—though not everyone I know is so pleased with the results. Niyaz checked in first: “It’s boring me, dude.” The next day brought a bold statement from an enthusiastic Desert Jeff: “Anyone remember another year in which the album of the year was wrapped up by early March? The new Arcade Fire album is THAT good.”

I wish I could agree with him, though I definitely disagree with Niyaz’s initial assessment. Neon Bible is far from boring, though it’s equally far from being the best album of any year.

It’s a heavily dramatic, oversaturated, relentlessly moody muddle—and also one of the deepest wells of operatic rock since Springsteen’s heyday. Nonetheless, and probably in the name of progress, it deliberately robs fans of the soaring pleasures offered on the Fire’s breakthrough, 2004’s Funeral. In other words, there’s nothing here quite as gloriously anthemic as “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)” or “Rebellion (Lies),” nor anything as soul-satisfying as “Wake Up.”

Not that several new songs don’t come close. “The Well and the Lighthouse” has the energy, a churning chug that rises and falls and rises and falls—without ever really making a profound impact. “Intervention,” a grandiose piece dappled with glockenspiel and strings and “Phantom of the Opera”-esque pipe organ, is a melancholy monster, its spirit-depleted look at religion and war fully matched by the majesty of the music.

On the other hand, “Keep the Car Running,” the most accessible cut, is better for not attempting to be so meaningful. Simmering over a tambourine-tinged “Town Called Malice” beat and occasionally exploding into robust chants, it’s most moving moment centers on nothing more than the title itself and a cry of “whoa-oh-oh-oh.”

Which is not to suggest that frontman Win Butler or his multi-instrumentalist wife and occasional vocalist Regine Chassagne have little of value to say. If anything, they have so much to say—13 hard-to-comprehend verses in the post-9/11 Dylanesque nightmare “(Antichrist Television Blues)” alone—that it’s virtually demanded the music become larger than life. We’re talking U2-huge here, the chiming sprawl lacking only the pealing of cathedral bells.

And yet Neon Bible is slightly flawed, and neither as electrifying nor as audaciously heretical as its title implies. Its dourness is what gets to me, and I mean that in both good and bad ways; it’s as rewarding as it is overdone.

I’m hardly the first to notice how Butler’s emotionally overcome warble increasingly resembles that of Echo and the Bunnymen’s Ian McCulloch. Rolling Stone‘s David Fricke: “If (he’s) looking for a long-lost twin brother, he can start looking in Quebec.” What I love about that similarity and how it fills “Neon Bible” is how it can transport me. Just as Echo’s sumptuous Ocean Rain sets an expertly sustained gothic-romantic mood, so does the Fire’s latest paint an equally bleak house with rich colors, with the masterful centerpiece “Ocean of Noise” crawling from gloom to hope with a hint of the dark intoxication that filled “The Killing Moon.”

But where Ocean Rain kept compact about its ambition, Neon Bible stretches out in too many directions, and the strays (the title interlude, the ill-fitting collision of “Black Wave/Bad Vibrations,” the needless remake of the Fire’s earlier “No Cars Go”) stick out like B-sides cluttering a classic. It could have been one of the decade’s best, let alone the year, though it’s a stronger (and more truly Springsteenian) work than the Killers’ Sam’s Town. At the very least it solidifies Arcade Fire’s spot near the top of the list of today’s most important bands.

Yet it’s a weird one—a grower, as these things are sometimes called, much like TV on the Radio’s Return to Cookie Mountain, which stuck with me so much last year it wound up atop my Top 10. Who knows: Maybe all I need to convince me of its wondrousness is a memorable experience at Coachella. That’s what it took for Funeral to stick, after all.

Sometimes the best records just need that extra push.

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