Indie heroes’ sophomore effort dark and well-crafted, if not another masterpiece
The Arcade Fire’s Funeral was a crucial record for a variety of reasons. On a circumstantial level — in the same way OK Computer redeemed guitar music in a decade when it seemed at risk of becoming utterly disposable — Funeral represented an indie-rock apotheosis. In the midst of plummeting record sales and increasingly stale mainstream airwaves, the cultural upwelling that turned the album into a cause célèbre offered the industry a galvanizing dose of energy and awe. The Arcade Fire’s musical syncretism bore out the story, as tympani, fiddle and guitar resonated together in postmodern folk dirges that were part Motown, part Talking Heads, and yet were bathed in the soft and murky aftertones of earlier folk and classical music. There’s a reverie and a pregnant sense of promise to Funeral’s stunned, post-funereal solipsism that made it one of the most joyful records about death ever made.
Following in that record’s wake, Neon Bible is heartbreaking in its retreat from Funeral’s fantasy city and its return to a real America that its narrator views with no small measure of dread. Asking the “Black Mirror” where the “bombs will fall”; predicting that there’s no way we’ll survive if the “Neon Bible” is right; running from “the weight that’s pressing down” in “Keep the Car Running”; pleading, “hear the soldiers groan all quiet and alone” in “Intervention”; and declaring “I don’t want to live in my father’s house no more,” then later, in “Windowsill,” “I don’t want to live in America no more”; the album has the type of latent rage, nauseous claustrophobia and social paranoia that shows up in OK Computer, and with a similarly diffuse target—a system, an epochal trend, the washing “Black Wave/Bad Vibrations” that an individual, even one with a guitar, can’t hope to stand up to. While not as overtly political as, say, Neil Young’s Living With War, the contexts of the war in Iraq and the flooding of New Orleans appear vividly throughout Neon Bible, which risks tying the album to its time in a way Funeral or even OK Computer weren’t. If Neon Bible is a measure of current ethos, it’s an unnerving report card.
This dark song cycle inverts well-loved formulae. The enveloping wash of church organ in “Intervention” does nothing to subvert the suggestion that “working for the church while your family dies” is perhaps more cardinal a sin than unbelief. In “Building Downtown,” Win Butler sounds like Springsteen and yet there’s no T-Bird waiting to take him to salvation, only the hope that hard work and obedience to the doctrines that encourage it can allow him some small space to live and breathe. Release only comes in the disjointed but welcome inclusion of “No Cars Go” (which was earlier released as a single and likely written apart from the rest of the songs here), where Régine Chassagne and Butler promise a place vehicles can’t reach, or perhaps in “My Body Is A Cage,” where at least one’s mind “holds the key.” Still, the call for escape and release seems as much wishful as determined, and there’s a pained sense of powerlessness throughout Neon Bible. It’s a hard, emotional record—certainly a good one.
But how good? Even following Funeral, Neon Bible isn’t disappointing per se, largely since Funeral wasn’t just an exposition of the Arcade Fire’s promise, but also a simultaneous delivery on that promise. Like OK Computer, it’s a record that’s power is forever preserved and divorced from what the band might do before or after. So, coming into Neon Bible, you aren’t asking if the Arcade Fire grew into the Arcade Fire you thought it could be; instead you open up to whatever direction its members have chosen. But, in truth, after the lavish escapism of Funeral, Neon Bible does feel like a less stratospheric accomplishment.
While there is still a great deal of craft, energy, drama and sonic variety, few of the songs have the kind of majesty of “Rebellion (Lies)” or “Wake Up,” and the fancy and imagination of its predecessor gives way to a more familiar, maybe at times even pedestrian, angst and rebellion. Plus, inevitably, the novelty and freshness of the band’s sonic approach loses its initial impact as Butler’s quavery yowl, his younger brother William’s strident bass work and the layers of orchestral percussion now all feel familiar, even if they remain distinctive. While Neon Bible is not a masterpiece like its predecessor, it is an excellent and frequently evocative album—one that, like Funeral, grows on you with repeated listens. If Neon Bible’s topicality and bleakness are a sign of the times, one can only hope that the members of the Arcade Fire are able to rekindle their funereal torches, renew their love and help us rebuild.