Arcade Fire

Neon Bible

(Merge; 2007)

By David M. Goldstein | 21 December 2007

I believe I once used a Violent Femmes review to detail the albatross that is the “classic” debut album: perfection on the first attempt, therefore patently impossible to follow up. And the Femmes didn’t even have to contend with blogosphere groupthink or the fact that their immediate fanbase could, in light of the perfection, use snap judgments to delete any second record from immediate hard drives three months before anyone’s supposed to hear it. The best case scenario that most of these classic first album bands can hope for is to produce something like Interpol’s Antics (2004), a bigger budget retread that, while inferior to what preceded it, is still good enough to ensure that the masses will care when your “difficult” third album leaks. Too much experimentation and/or risk taking on album #2 is seldom a good idea, unless one suspects Clap Your Hands Say Yeah actually enjoys not selling records.

Fellow CMG scribe Sean Ford wasn’t joking when he mentioned to me two years ago at a National concert that no other blog-era band in recent history would be forced to weather the levels of second album scrutiny that the Arcade Fire “are about to experience right now.” For lack of a better phrase, people seem to genuinely care about this band, and, as proof, they’ve got the Good Housekeeping stamp of approval from all the right indie celebrities. The first time I saw Arcade Fire play New York City, it was at a 1,200 capacity venue, and David Byrne trotted out during the encore to join them on a Talking Heads song. Four months later, the venue size had nearly tripled, and this time the encore featured David Bowie -- on an Arcade Fire song. They still only had one album to their name. How can Carlos D. even begin to compete with that?

And just about everything you’ve heard about Arcade Fire onstage is true. You really do need to approach their shows with the “see them every time” fervor usually reserved for jam bands. They deserve much respect for being the rarest of entities: a popular band on an independent label who treats its concerts as a spectacle apart from an excuse to stand motionless and replicate studio efforts (cough, cough, Shins, cough). Other artists have recently attempted the ten-plus musicians onstage thing with varying degrees of success, but relative to Sufjan Stevens (too community theater) and the Polyphonic Spree (too cloying), the Arcade Fire get it right. The result is a passionate rock and roll show that never feels phoned in. Plus, everyone gets to play bass at least once!

Which brings us to Neon Bible, successor to the wildly successful Funeral (2004) and an album that was clearly made for, and will likely sound better on, the stage. Funeral had a large sound, but still felt personal, mostly on account of an oblique set of lyrics addressing the then recent deaths of the band members’ relatives while detailing a story of lost childhood innocence via the “Neighborhood” suite. In stark contrast, Neon Bible goes widescreen and Springsteen, usually rejecting the personal in favor of the BIG issues like living in wartime America, religious hypocrisy, falling bombs, and (gulp) MTV (as in, “what have you done to me?”).

Bigger issues = bigger sounds, so most of Neon Bible gets recorded in an old church outside of Montreal, and swathed in borderline obscene puddles of reverb not even Jim James would touch. Toss in a frequent use of pipe organ, huge kettle drums, and multi-instrumentalist Regine Chassagne’s now ghostly sounding vocal counterpoint (the Sen Dog to Win Butler’s B-Real) and the result is a considerably more gothic affair than Funeral, a set that sometimes screams “overcompensation!” It’s to the Arcade Fire’s credit that they’re generally passionate enough to make these elements work, resulting in enthusiastic tent revivals like the galloping “Keep the Car Running” and career highlight “No Cars Go.” But their newfound emphasis on the big themes finds them flirting with depths of embarrassment that are far more easily excused onstage, if not necessarily on the home or car stereo.

The most obvious offender in this regard is late album blight “Windowsill,” where bad high school poetry (“I don’t want to fight in the holy war / I don’t want the salesmen knocking at my door / I don’t want to live in America no more!”) is wedded to a predictable build-up arrangement that crashes into self-parody. Then there’s first single “Intervention,” which brings the pipe organ into considerably grandiose focus. A far-reaching hymn about “every last spark of friendship and love!” that sounds like it was pulled from The Rising (2002), is it a brilliant tribute to Springsteen’s blue-collar, God-fearing anthems or embarrassing melodrama? It’s probably a bit of both; it is unquestionably ballsy, and sounded pretty awesome amongst the stained glass at New York University’s Judson Church, if not on Saturday Night Live, where Win Butler felt compelled to end it by engaging in the most hackneyed display of guitar smashing this side of Avril Lavigne.

Oh, about that pipe organ…not since Rush rocked the Yamaha DX-7 on Power Windows (1985) has a set of ivories so threatened to overshadow everything else on its parent album. There’s portions of Neon Bible that really do seem to serve no discernible purpose other than as a showcase for the fact that yes, they really did have a gigantic church organ at their disposal when it was recorded. The whole of “Intervention” comes perilously close to novelty status, but features just enough forward drive to overcome its overwhelming reliance on the keys. Less fortunate is album closer “My Body Is a Cage”; it's essentially an excuse to end Neon Bible with the most gothic pipe organ sound imaginable, allowing the band to live out their Phantom of the Opera fantasies while Win Butler warbles under the bombast that his body is, uh, a cage.

It sounds damning, I know, but note that “Windowsill” and “Cage” merely comprise two tracks of Bible’s eleven. Barring the questionable second half of “Black Wave/Bad Vibrations” where Butler drops knowledge about “eating in the ghetto on a hundred dollar plate” over goth-by-numbers backing, the majority of Neon Bible makes good on Arcade Fire’s twin strengths: forward propulsion -- courtesy of metronomic drummer Jeremy Gara -- and unbridled enthusiasm.

The good stuff is reflected in the side B one-two punch of “The Well and the Lighthouse” and “(Antichrist Television Blues),” both of which are driving, deliriously upbeat songs with memorable vocal hooks only obscured by the huge amounts of reverb within. The latter track again indulges Butler’s newfound Springsteen jones, weaving what initially appears to be a wordy “Badlands”-style tale of a minimum wage worker placing all of his faith in the man upstairs. However, closer analysis reveals it to be a still very Bruce-sounding plea from a disgraced clergyman attempting to rationalize his unholy leanings, a conceit supposedly based upon Joe (father of Jessica and Ashlee) Simpson. “Keep the Car Running” is another highlight, accenting its twin violin flourishes with a infectious kick drum and mandolin motif, and “Ocean of Noise” is Neon Bible’s answer to “Crown of Love,” forging the mid-album break-up ballad by eschewing the pipe organ in favor of an echo-laden grand piano at the bridge.

Neon Bible’s finest track, and the one which most typifies why the kids deem this band worthy of worship, is “No Cars Go.” Already recorded in skeletal form on the Arcade Fire’s debut EP (2003), there’s no shame in this redraft, especially because a larger budget was required for the song to reach its potential. The main lyric, a repeated rumination on “a place where no cars (and spaceships, planes, etc.) go” is simple enough, but the song’s rhythmic drive is extremely impressive, even more so when it’s filled out by a full orchestra and by perfectly timed group shouts before building to a full on chorale of “Well, we KNOW!!” The result is a joyous celebration that will likely be responsible for more goose bumps than any single song released this year. I’ve learned that the latter is never more true than when the song is used to open the band’s live shows, an experience which reminded this critic of the phrase that the late Bill Graham once used to introduce the Grateful Dead: “they’re not the best at what they do, they’re the only ones at what they do.”

Which is why it’s a little frustrating to find Arcade Fire treading perilously close to Evanescence territory on doom-y fare like “Black Mirror” and “Black Wave/Bad Vibrations” when it’s obvious, to me at least, that they’re so much better at the upbeat stuff. Neon Bible isn’t quite the revelation that Funeral was; its newfound embrace of worldly concerns often borders on the embarrassing, and the reverberation threatens to swallow the songs whole. But it’s still an ambitious effort from a unique band worthy of the accolades that their fanbase heaps upon them. And while I’m hoping that they grow out of their “mirror, mirror / on the wall / show me where the / bombs will fall” phase by album number three, I’m already eagerly anticipating its release.