Friday, 18 July 2008

Top 100 Albums - #33: Neon Bible (2007)

Arcade Fire's most recent effort is their second and last entry on the chart at number 33.
The success of Funeral (2004, #37) caught Arcade Fire by surprise. Within a year of its release, the group had received the patronage of David Bowie, been nominated for a Mercury Prize, and been forced to extend what started as a small tour of clubs into a global slog culminating with an appearance at Lollapolooza. Riding this wave of new-found critical acclaim, and commercial success, the band took the last six months of 2005 off to take stock and begin writing new material. In this time Funeral was released in the UK and a second wave of fame came, so that by the end of the year it had sold over half a million copies worldwide.¹ After playing with Bowie at Fashion Rocks - which produced Live EP (2005, #98) - the band opened for U2 on a section of their Vertigo tour. 2006 was devoted to writing and producing new material, halted only by the sudden departure of drummer Howard Bilerman.

We kick off this most difficult of second albums with 'Black Mirror'. The differences are instantly apparent. From the moment the first two chords have clawed their way through the smoke, all hopes of a light-hearted follow-up are gone. Even compared to the sound of Funeral, this is darker, heavier, more claustrophobic. Wyn Butler's delivery has changed from the angry wail of 'Rebellion (Lies)' to a throaty, suspicious murmur; he is singing from the shadows and watching his back. The lyrics are more reactive as well - the closing refrain, Mirror, mirror, on the wall/ Show me where the bombs will fall is less an ironic salvo against war and more a cynical curse uttered under one's breath. But you know what? - it works.

If you're not immediately convinced, 'Keep The Car Running' kicks the tempo up and attempts to take the mood with it. The snappy drums and jaunty mandolin serve as an effective counterpoint to what is still a very bleak subject. Had this been done by any other band on any other instruments, this would have been written off as humdrum indie. But in the hands of Arcade Fire, we have an insane foot-stomper, a classic hand-clapper and a splendid second single all rolled into one.

The title track returns to the quieter, more moody sound of 'Black Mirror'. And it is here that we get the first hints as to what this album is about, what it is attacking or seeking to provoke. The lyrics seem impenetrable at first glance, but dig deeper and they speak of a deep-seated alienation from contemporary society. With their talk of poison and golden calfs, it depicts a generation being seduced and turned sour; the 'neon bible' in question is the overpowering influence of TV. At only 2:17 it's the shortest track on here, but all that needs to be said is here.

For the second time, we oscillate from quiet to loud as 'Intervention' begins. And how it begins. The huge, swelling organ chords in the first few seconds seem overpowering at first, but once the guitar arrives you put such thoughts aside as together they set the backdrop for a classic. Its lyrics, on one level, are a thinly-veiled swipe at power-mad governments, in this case the Bush administration (The king's taken back the throne/ The useless seed is sown). In that sense it is similar to 'Rebellion (Lies)' - you certainly won't find any difference in quality, and on the surface they are both the cries of the helpless individual lost in a world of gung-ho politics and unremitting greed. However, this feels more personal, more helpless, more exposed than 'Rebellion (Lies)'. You empathise with the character more, perhaps because of the references to the plight of soldiers which increasingly hit home. It's a brutal, heart-wrenching song. It pulls no punches and deserves pride of place on the album.

The next track, on the other hand, doesn't. 'Black Wave/ Bad Vibrations' not only has a stupid title, but it feels far too much like straightahead indie pop to be considered veteran 'Fire material. Régine Chassagne takes the lead, and while she can actually sing - unlike a growing majority of indie artists - she is lumbered by skittish lyrics. There are a hotch-potch of banal English and gratuitous French. Even when Butler takes over, you are still pissed off beyond all reconciliation.

Fortunately, with 'Ocean Of Noise' the band regains its composure. The teasingly funky bass line provided by Tim Kingsbury is well-met by drummer Jeremy Gara's hi-hat. These two provide the lilting backdrop for the deep, dark piano chords and, eventually, Butler. The ocean in question is a metaphor for lack of control, again conveying a feeling of helplessness and despair in fthe 21st century. The refrain - Yourgot your reasons/ And me I got mine/ But all the reasons/ I gave were just lies/ To buy myself some time - are both another swipe at government secrecy and a musing on the confrontational role of the internet. It's well-reined in, carefully controlled and a big improvement on the last track.

The next two tracks continue this vein of new-found good luck. 'The Well And The Lighthouse' is up-tempo, echoey and leaves you quivering in your boots. The deceptive pace of the song causes you to move faster, even though the tempo is quite standard and by now you have grown used to Butler's stricken delivery. In the final 90 seconds or so, we slow down to a near-lugubrious crawl as Butler plays with Biblical imagery to convey his contempt of modern life (The lions and the lambs ain't sleepin', yeah). '(Antichrist Television Blues)', meanwhile, manages to avoid being a traditional sleep-inducing strum, even in spite of the off-puttingly postmodern brackets. It may not be crawling, but it is sprawling. With only the 12-bar blues structure to keep him in check, Butler bulldozes his way through this with plenty of sound and fury. Essentially a cross between an impotent, spur-of-the-moment rant and a desperate man wrestling with God, musically it all works out rather well, and the ending is perfectly executed.

'Windowstill' is the third track on here with a bothersome title, in this case a shameless pun or portmanteau. What's more, the structure of the song is flatter than we have come to expect, and we still get the same old brow-beating over war, religion and capitalism:

I don't want to fight in a holy war
I don't want the salesman knocking on my door
I don't want to live in America no more

Don't think, however, that it's a bad song. In spite of these things, this is a damn-sight more original, more compelling and more interesting than anything else recently produced on these subjects. The lyrics, particularly towards the end, are very double-sided. On one reading, they are the angry cry of a rebel, looking to liberate the world from the evil powers which are currently bleeding it dry; on another, it is an exposition of the thoroughly middle-class practice of desiring to ignore any trouble until it becomes personally embarrassing. Because of this fantastic ambiguity - a rarity in today's songwriters - we can even forgive the slapdash references to MTV and World War III.

'No Cars Go' will already be familiar to devoted fans of the 'Fire. It appeared in a more understated guise on Arcade Fire EP (2003). Here, though, it comes in all guns blazing and heavily orchestrated. Which is just how it should be, because here we have the best track on the album. Gara's drumming is like a machine gun powering its way through the mix, passt the sombre violins and cellos, determined not to let the piece drag or become dull. The bass is properly heavy, and at the second verse it jostles with William Butler's Gary Numan-esque synth stylings. This has the style and sophistication of a Parisian café with the raw power of a Koeniggsegg CCX and the brutal honesty of an anarchist. In some respects this is like Peter Gabriel's 'Down The Dolce Vita' (see my review of Peter Gabriel 1 (1977, #71)) - it is unrelenting and uncompromising. It takes your head and messes with it, so that when things finally die down you are left with the sort of ecstacy which takes you ten minutes to get your breath back.

Unfortunately, that is not the end of the story. While we are trying to calm down, we have to sit through 'My Body Is A Cage'. The other political songs on the album got away with being so direct by having lyrics which were crammed full of ambiguity and structures which kept you guessing. This has neither of these things. Lyrically, it's too overt, and with Butler's singing, there is a limit to how long you can put up with ca-age and a-age before you want to rip his head off. The melody meanwhile is restricted by the huge organ, which drowns out everything else. What a crushing disappointment on which to finish.

When compared to Funeral - as it inevitably must - Neon Bible does come up short on a number of points. It doesn't feel as unified as Funeral in either its message or its execution, even if the cause of this unity was largely down to chance. Many will baulk at the grandiose production, which is evident on the closing tracks; a few of the songs are too conventional to satisfy the 'Fire's kookiest followers; and although you get more tracks, you actually get less music for your money. However, if you concentrate very, very hard, everything about this album starts to make sense. The balance between the personal and political - so perfectly captured on Funeral - is there, but the proportions have changed and the goalposts have moved. The mood is more complex, more thought-provoking, and darker to boot. If Funeral reassured you that you were not the only person in the world who felt this way, Neon Bible invites you - nay, commands you - to turn inwards, to investigate yourself and why you feel this way, providing nothing in the way of societal excuses or cultural platitudes. It is a great collection of songs which will, over the years, reveal more and more of itself - and as a result, a great deal more of you.

3.91 out of 5

¹ NME News, 'Exclusive - Arcade Fire duet with Bowie released', Accessed on July 21 2008.

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