Arcade Fire | Neon Bible (Merge)

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Neon Bible is to the '00s what Radiohead's OK Computer was to the '90s. Quite simply, it captures the zeitgeist as only a few pieces of popular music have ever managed to do.

 

 

 

 

"Ask whatever challenges dead and thoughtless beliefs. Ask: When did we become human beings and stop being whatever it was we were before this? Ask: Having become human, what is it that we are now doing or creating that will transform us into whatever it is that we are slated to next become?

"Even if it means barking on street corners, that's what you have to do, each time baying louder than before. You must testify. There is no other choice."

—Douglas Coupland, Girlfriend in a Coma 

When Funeral, the debut album from Montreal's Arcade Fire, was released in the fall of 2004, it garnered instant and nearly unanimous acclaim, heralding the arrival a major new creative force in rock. A powerfully intoxicating blend of scrappy post-punk and nearly symphonic orchestral arrangements, Funeral presented a suite of songs rich in metaphor, a work that probed and explored the human condition as a new ice age enveloped the world, depriving it of light, heat, and ultimately even precious memories of the past. Against this rather audacious backdrop of postmodernism, the band presented a dizzying range of ideas concerned mostly with life and death, loss and love, freedom and hope. Most everybody who heard the record came away from the experience knowing at least one sure thing: these kids were shooting from the hip and playing from the heart.

Two and a half years later, the band have teamed with a number of engineers and producers, among them the legendary Bob Johnston (Blonde On Blonde, Songs from a Room, At Folsom Prison, et al), to deliver their eagerly awaited sophomore LP. In short, it's a staggering success. Neon Bible is to the '00s what Radiohead's OK Computer was to the '90s. Quite simply, it captures the zeitgeist as only a few pieces of popular music have ever managed to do.

While Funeral's nervous energy runs through much of Neon Bible, the new record feels more carefully considered than its predecessor, both lyrically and musically. A largely organic affair, it seems to have been built from the ground up around a sturdy framework of acoustic guitars, earthy basslines and intuitive string arrangements, moving the band's sound further out of the indie ghetto and closer to the gentrified heart and soul of rock ‘n' roll. That said, an obvious debt is owed such early '80s club staples as New Order and Talking Heads, both of which are recalled to varying degrees on such tracks as the spooky opening cut "Black Mirror," the bleating "The Well and the Lighthouse" and "Black Waves/Bad Vibrations," a revisitation of themes first explored on Funeral's "Haiti." The production is impeccable, with depth, color and nuance galore. There is no obnoxious peaking here, no melange of noises each engaged with the other in a competition for dominance, and it's almost depressing how refreshing this sounds in 2007.

As much as Funeral was about love and loss and life, the central thematic plank of Neon Bible is the increasingly suffocating monotony that threatens to remove the very concepts of individuality and personal identity from the cultural lexicon. There is a discomfiting, at times almost claustrophobic, sense of powerlessness at the heart of no fewer than all 11 of the record's songs, a feeling that something important in each of us has been lost, never to be found again. The album's cryptic lead single, "Black Mirror," finds its narrator waking from a nightmare and trotting to the ocean, offering the first of the album's many allusions to dark water and rising tides. He stands looking into the water, the moonless sky affording him no reflection. "I know the time is coming/ When all the words will lose their meaning," Butler sings, his voice awash in eerie backmasking effects, a perversely ascending piano melody lacing itself through the narrow spaces of the song's speedily strummed guitars. "Please show me something that isn't mine/ But mine is the only kind that I relate to." In this way, the song speaks to the homogeneity of the modern world, daring it to show us something new and relevant even as our ability to appreciate that which is different diminishes before our very eyes. The following track, uptempo rocker "Keep the Car Running," again finds Butler contemplating dreams, every night the same ones, "same old city with a different name/ There's a weight that's pressin' down, late at night I can hear the sound."

The title cut from Neon Bible is quite short with a running time of just over two minutes, but it is important if only for the fact that it introduces the listener to the album's brief fascination with religion. Can it be used as a balm to stave off the emptiness of the world? It seems doubtful, to hear Butler sing bitterly, "In the light of a golden calf/ Oh God, I just had to laugh." The song "Intervention," with its refrain of "Workin' for the church while your family dies," paints a similarly bleak picture. "You're still a soldier in your mind/ Though nothing's on the line," according to one verse, suggesting that religion is yet one more obstacle on the path to virtue and self-fulfillment, no different at the end of the day from any other hollow pursuit or needless distraction.

The album's theme of stifled personal ambition amid a world of conformity is given the reverse Big Bang treatment, crammed into its ninth track, "Windowsill," as if by some reality-altering science-magic. The verses, crooned against a backdrop of strummed acoustic guitar resting on an airy pillow of synths, find Butler defining himself using negatives, as in, "I don't want to hear the noises on TV/ I don't want the salesmen comin' after me," chasing each couplet with the mantralike statement, "I don't want to live in my father's house no more." The song takes a frustrated stand against the soft-headedness, rampant consumerism and junk culture that have increasingly come to define modern American society. "I don't want it faster, I don't want it free," Butler protests, "I don't want to show you what they've done to me." Like so many young men of his generation, he is embarrassed by the superficial legacy we have inherited. The song's chorus is an exalted sigh of R&B, albeit one with a tear in its eye, all strings, brass and cleverly stacked layers of backing vocals. "The tide is high, and it's risin' still/ I don't want to see it at my windowsill." Even the casual listener will notice that Butler offers no galvanizing statements, no possible solutions or alternatives to the intrusiveness by which he is so offended. He's at a loss. The following song, "(Antichrist Television Blues)" follows a similar path, its fever-pitch Springsteenian narrative offering glimpses of a desperate, god-fearing father's attempt to thrust his young daughter into the public eye; not for money, not for fame, but simply so that he can share her talent with the world. It's edgy stuff.

Following a slightly rearranged version of their live staple "No Cars Go," the Arcade Fire conclude their second consecutive tour de force with "My Body Is a Cage," a moody dirge with a ticktock beat on loan from Phil Collins's "In the Air Tonight" that encapsulates the album's themes and serves as a concluding paragraph of sorts. "I'm living in an age," Butler drawls, "that calls darkness light/ Though my language is dead, still the shapes fill my head." A choir of voices chant hymnlike over the song during its second refrain, then it explodes like a supernova during the third, gossamer trumpets quivering like gold-veined petals against a deafening blast of immense church organ. "My mind holds the key," Butler concludes, "Set my body free… set my body free… set my body free…" And then his voice stops, his earthly presence escaping with the sharply resonating organ as it cuts out suddenly and bounces briefly around the room. A+ | Paul John Little

RIYL: Bruce Springsteen's Darkness on the Edge of Town; Modest Mouse; Talking Heads' Remain in Light; feeling like you're not the only twentysomething in the world on a quest for personal fulfillment.

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