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Arcade Fire - Neon Bible  Print E-mail
Music Disc Reviews Audio CD
Written by Matt Fink   
Sunday, 01 April 2007

format:    16-bit CD
performance:    8
sound:    7
release year:    2007
label:    Merge
reviewed by:    Matt Fink

Though it’s now an act that has become a bit of a rock and roll cliché, a rite of passage passed down from Pete Townsend and Jimi Hendrix through Kurt Cobain and Conor Oberst, smashing a guitar still means something. And when Arcade Fire’s Win Butler shattered his black Gibson acoustic into splinters at the end of his band’s performance on Saturday Night Live, it was more than a symbolic (and reportedly spontaneous) gesture by a man who wanted to make a punctuation mark on an otherwise commonplace performance. It was a moment that crystallized everything that defines their music. The heart-on-sleeve earnestness, the utter lack of irony, the youth indignant – it’s all there in that one release of pent-up frustration. And it’s all throughout Neon Bible.

Ignoring the fact that just about everything has changed for the Montreal sextet since the release of their 2004 full-length debut Funeral launched them from unknown indie rock act to sharing stages with David Bowie and U2, Neon Bible is remarkably free of the hesitance and calculation that usually accompanies such unexpected breakthroughs. Instead, it’s a self-possessed and self-conscious album, turning the focus away from the insular grief of their breakthrough in favor of railing against war, American culture and religious hypocrisy. A bold and decidedly audacious release, it’s designed to overreach and invite criticism while serving as a rallying call for a new generation of disillusioned youth. But if you feel like you’ve heard it all before, you’re probably right.

For one thing, the musical approach on Neon Bible varies little from the rumble and surge that defined Funeral’s sonic catharsis. Loaded with strings, horns, drums, pianos, choirs, accordions, mandolins – it’s the same basic template, here emboldened and enlarged to mirror the writing’s thematic thrust. From the ominous rumble and orchestral sweep that opens the album with “Black Mirror” through the soaring synths and swirling strings of “Ocean of Noise,” the songs throb and pulse with a wild, kinetic energy, slowly fraying at the edges with pent up emotion. And yet, it’s a simpler album in many ways, with many of the arrangements built around straightforward changes and instantly memorable melodies, with the roots-rock strum of “Antichrist Television Blues” mixing with the plaintive balladry of the title track. That said, the soaring dream-pop of “The Well and the Lighthouse,” with its dreamy cascade of synths and ‘50s pop breakdown, is far more elaborate, just as the two-part “Black Wave/Bad Vibrations” moves from Regine Chassange’s queasy new wave pop to Butler’s darkly sinister second half, providing a startling contrast between the two approaches.

Conceptually, themes of alienation, frustration and confusion are as old as rock itself, and it’s impossible to not see Butler striking a Springsteen pose on the sing-along stomp of “Keep the Car Running” and the album centerpiece “Intervention.” The latter, built over a simple chord progression that stirs familiar echoes from Woody Guthrie to Bob Dylan, arguably ranks as Butler’s greatest integration of Biblical and apocalyptic imagery and cathartic song dynamics. “Who’s going to throw the first stone?/Who’s going to reset the bone?” Butler asks pointedly, his croon rising and falling in intensity over a backdrop of massively droning pipe organ and tinkling glockenspiel as he creates a bleak portrait of a country too indifferent and fearful to do anything to save itself. “Mirror, mirror, on the wall/Show me where the bombs will fall,” he sings on “Black Mirror,” with the song’s claustrophobic moan illustrating the writing’s hopelessness. “I don’t want to fight in a holy war/I don’t want the salesman knocking at my door,” Butler sings apologetically on “Antichrist Television Blues,” concluding, “I don’t want to live in America no more.”

Ultimately, Butler emerges as the rare kind of political songwriter who has the good sense to avoid becoming bogged down in polemics and shrill hyperbole by simply writing about what it’s like to be alive at this moment in time. As such, it’s not particularly troubling that his version of modern America is one without much hope, where wars burn on forever and no one seems to care much. Like John Lennon, coming to terms with the innate shortcomings of mankind on Plastic Ono Band, Butler’s answer seems to be to turn inward, and based on the case he has developed throughout Neon Bible, it’s a decision that rings undeniably true. By the time he issues a rallying call for action on “No Cars Go,” it’s to direct his listeners to get out while they still have a chance.

Taken as a whole, Neon Bible is a more than suitable second act, but it’s hard to not feel that it simply falls a bit short of its lofty goals. As an album, it just seems a bit slight, not

quite as epic in execution as it is in concept, never quite sharp enough in its writing or as elaborate in its sonic detail to make it a release superior to its predecessor. Unlike the best work of U2 or the Clash, this isn’t an album that fits together piece by piece, with characters and storytelling that lead the listener through the drama and reveal new nuances with every listen. It is, however, evidence that Butler is an exceptional tunesmith, writing songs that resonate with energy and shudder with earnestness. Ultimately, they are songs that hold up under scrutiny but certainly don’t require much attention to appreciate. They’re songs that simply sound good and honest and alive. And they’re just about as subtle as a smashed guitar.

As with Funeral, the production is choked with reverb and thick with texture. Few, if any, textures are crisp or clean, as everything is cloaked in a layer of fog and studio dust. But as before, it works perfectly, as the pileup of instruments and sounds are designed to increase your heart rate more than dazzle your sensibilities. Butler’s quavering vocals are appropriately high in the mix, leaving the murky din of strings, horns, and voices to form one ethereal wall of sound. For music that emphasizes size over detail, no other approach would serve them better.

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