catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 6 :: 2007.03.23 — 2007.04.06


Neon Bible reveals more than indie emotionalism

It’s hard not to gush when writing a review of Arcade Fire.  Pitchfork’s music critic David Moore couldn’t help himself when he reviewed the band’s 2004 release, Funeral, calling it a glorious return to truly emotional music.  Darcy Frey of The New York Times touted Arcade Fire’s very, very indie nature, celebrating their refusal to join a major label and praising the weirdness of their choice to record and perform in church buildings.  I find it difficult to avoid gushing over this band myself, especially after hearing the band’s newest album, Neon Bible.

I wasn’t too excited about the band’s second album, Funeral, when it first came out.  The album seemed to fit the values of an independent music movement bent on subverting popular music’s mainstream by being as strange and unique as possible.  The problem was that many of the popular indie bands of 2004 sounded too much alike.  Many of them were merely updated versions of late 70s/early 80s New Wave bands Television, Talking Heads, Joy Division, etc.  The straight disco-influenced drumming got tiresome and the whiny vocals annoying. 

As time went on, though, Arcade Fire slowly emerged as more substantive, more genuine, perhaps more ambitious than the other like-sounding independents.  I found myself coming back to this album more often than the others.  I was positively haunted and intrigued by one lyric in particular.  Placed in the middle of Arcade Fire’s meditations on loss, lead singer (and former Theology student) Win Butler confesses  “It’s not a lover I want no more, and it’s not heaven I’m pining for, but there’s some spirit I used to know that’s been drowned out by the radio!”  I can remember the first time I really heard that line, really heard what he was saying because of the way he sang it.  I could relate to it.  The line succinctly gave voice to my own deepest desires.

But it wasn’t until Arcade Fire’s most recent album, Neon Bible, that I finally felt this spirit come through my speakers in all the fullness I was longing for.  It’s not because Arcade Fire finally has the financial means to hire a highly skilled engineer or possesses the equipment to make a great sounding recording, though that certainly helps.  It’s not just the hype surrounding their new album, though that definitely adds to the excitement.  No, I think the spirit sought after in Funeral is now driving the music of Neon Bible, is growing in strength as the band grows in confidence. 

The new album seems to represent an increase in the band’s ambition.  Neon Bible is more forward moving, outwardly motivated, even on the attack.  Much to my surprise and delight, Arcade Fire’s punk influence is coming out now. 

In Neon Bible, Arcade Fire’s passion is not just political, it’s spiritual.  Enflamed by the big issues of our time, by our captivity to fear in a post-911 North American landscape, by the power of television media and its marriage with evangelical Christianity, Arcade Fire refuses to become hopelessly complacent.  The band admits their own confusion and fear, but the music gives no sign of surrender.  Win Butler trades in his David Byrne impression for a voice with more clout, mixing the zeal of early Bruce Springsteen with the conviction of The Clash’s Joe Strummer and U2’s Bono. 

Neon Bible shines a light on the darkness, from the album’s opening track “Black Mirror” to “Black Wave/Bad Vibrations” and “The Well and the Lighthouse”.  Our human attempts to illuminate the black hole in our lives are represented in “Neon Bible” and “Windowsill”.  Butler questions his own ambitions in “Antichrist Television Blues” and hopes his music can be a true light despite the wave of darkness threatening to overcome all his labors.  The singer’s hopes and fears culminate in an urgent plea to be set free from his own limitations in “My Body is a Cage”.  The Arcade Fire’s use of a church organ in “Intervention” and “My Body is a Cage” supports Butler’s concerns about the place of faith in a land where names no longer have any meaning and where God has been forgotten … though the shape still remains for Butler. 

Neon Bible makes it clear: Arcade Fire is not willing to give up the faith that obviously still haunts them.  The music swells on a hope that still promises light in a neon world.  Though all that is revealed in this strange land of dark souls is only a mirror image of our own darkness, Arcade Fire calls out for a truer light that is surely on its way.  Though there is frustration in Butler’s admission that “The lions and the lambs ain’t sleeping yet” there is also great exhilaration and power in this perceived sentence of despair that ends with an ever-so promising “yet”.   

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