Arcade Fire became a household name when Funeral slowly crept its way into the indie-rock VIP lounge in 2004. The album wasn’t a wall of sound, it was a Fucking-Great-Wall-of-China Sound. So many instruments and so much energy were packed into a single album, despite being produced in the wake of the deaths of several band member’s loved ones – hence the title. With a single album (and a debut, at that), Arcade Fire became the “it” band of the year.
Then lead singer Win Butler announced Neon Bible months before its release.
It’s the album that required its own special website, complete with full lyrics weeks before the release date; the album that demanded its own telephone line, which gave fans the chance to speak with the band; the album recorded mainly in a Montreal church, complete with pipe organ; the album that followed a so-called masterpiece, one regarded as the best of the new millennium by critics; the album with unreasonable expectations, hype and pressures usually reserved for curing terminal illnesses.
Surprisingly, Neon Bible is a dark epic. The band spends an ample amount of time mulling over the depression that has encompassed America and the world, including the chance of world war, problems within the Church and the most dreaded of all: MTV. Some of the discussions are urgent and immediately gripping. Some border on campy and childish, leaving behind an inconsistent trail of a few orgasmic tracks, a number of listenable – but surely mind-blowing live – tracks and a few outright stinkers.
The opener, “Black Mirror,” signals the band’s departure from all things Funeral. The introduction thunders ominously against dreary background percussion met with warning-siren-like guitar plucks. But their grand sound of old has not left, and an overwhelming string section gives way to frontman Win Butler’s depressing lyrics: “Mirror, mirror, on the wall / Show me where them bombs will fall.” The track is demanding, setting the tone for darker ideas to come.
The title track is a peculiar choice to represent the album. Though gorgeous in its subtlety, it’s overshadowed by the louder and overly grandiose “Intervention.” Emphasized by the first dose of church organ, “Intervention” is Neon Bible’s equivalent to Funeral’s feature suite “Wake Up.” The track is astonishing in its beauty, coupled with the God-has-returned-to-Earth organ concordance and fleeting guitar riffs care of Richard Reed Parry. Win’s dark lyrics glow despite the awful undertones: “Working for the Church while your family dies / You take what they give you / And you keep it inside.”
Other songs aren’t as realized. “Ocean of Noise” cuts down the large Arcade sound in favor of a reserved rainy day track, with dull piano and an empty-room-echo feel. “Antichrist Television Blues” characterizes pushy parents in the MTV generation, but it’s completely forgettable as Win quips, “My girl’s 13, but she don’t act her age / She can sing like a bird in a cage.”
“Windowsill” is the most glaring attack on the United States, its lyrics ranging from harsh (“World War III, when are you coming for me?”) to downright rubbish (“Don’t wanna fight in a holy war / Don’t want the salesmen knocking at my door / I don’t wanna live in America no more”). No one is safe from the tirade as Win quietly sings, “MTV, what have you done to me?” Though the song is lyrically dull, something remains affecting in the lines: “Why is the night so still? / Why did I take the pill? / Because I don’t wanna see it at my windowsill!”
Though “No Cars Go” appeared on the band’s original EP, the track returns in even finer form. For anyone who has seen the song performed live, complete with motorcycle helmets and drumming on virtually anything in stick range, the new version competes wonderfully. An added string section tangled with an even more hair-raising chanting section makes the track a masterpiece.
Following an album like Funeral is awfully tough, but Neon Bible does well despite its faltering midsection. Even though the album will undoubtedly melt Levis live, the album doesn’t dwarf the current indie scene like its predecessor did.
From such a young band with limitless talent, surely greater efforts are still to come – some possibly greater than the group’s sterling debut and its solid follow-up.
Rating:3.5 out of 5 stars