Arcade Fire – Neon Bible
Released March 3rd, 2007 on Merge Records
Rock ‘n’ roll is shot through with instances of the Difficult Second Album. A band makes it big, often by surprise, with a debut album that resonates with the masses. The band then tours like mad, builds up a huge amount of hype, and is suddenly faced with the prospect of having to follow up that glorious debut with something that keeps the momentum going. James Hetfield once said “you have 18 years to write your first album, and six months to write the second,” and it’s uncomfortably true. Metallica themselves made it through okay, releasing a second album that was even better than their debut; many other bands have fallen by the wayside by doing the exact opposite. Often, bands will either release an album that completely falls flat (let’s talk about Marcy Playground some more) or an album that rehashes the first with diminishing results (hello Cloud Nothings). The hype and pressure combine to completely wreck a band in the process of trying to prove that they’re more than just a flash in the pan.
So, Arcade Fire, Greatest Band Of Their Generation. Funeral was huge when it came out in 2004. I wept – literally wept – when I first heard “Neighbourhoods #1 (Tunnels)”. There was a choral nature to the album that struck everyone that listened to it. It was exactly as it appeared at first blush – the sound of a group of people working out their grief through music that, instead of wallowing in misery, affirmed the beauty and the inherent goodness of life. If you held a gun to my head, Funeral would be my choice for the greatest album ever recorded. Hell, you wouldn’t even have to point a gun at my head. You could just point. You could ask. You could be in the same room as me. I could walk into the room you were in, and I’d tell you the same. It would get annoying.
How to follow it up, though? The gap between 2004 and 2007 was a long one and the hipsters were waiting for the second Arcade Fire with knives sharpened over and over again. When it came out, they leapt on it, ready with accusations: “Ugh, earnest lyrics and politics, how pretentious” and “OMG, it’s so Bruce Springsteen, how gauche” (a line Rolling Stone would take with The Suburbs, with lumbering Boomer efficiency). Neon Bible shrugs both accusations off, however. To the first, it adopts a certain fatalism with regard to its apocalyptic subject matter. In 2006-2007, war fatigue had set in across the Western world. Bush was in the middle of his Difficult Second Term, and the band’s own home country was engulfed in economic restructuring and political instability. The crash was still a year off, but the signs of the gathering storm were everywhere. “Keep The Car Running” wasn’t just paranoia; in 2007, there was a palpable sense that there was something coming, and it was coming in hard. Who’s to say that, ten years later, the song isn’t even more viscerally relevant: disappearing from friends and family, gone into the night. The knock at 4 AM. The same place animals go when they die. Keep one eye to the door, listen out for the neighbours, and the stairs. Keep the car running.
There’s that same heady weight to all of these songs. “Black Mirror” (with that soulful twisting French line that seems to flow out of Regine Chassande like fine chocolate) walks out to the ocean and is greeted with an implacable and ancient force that is as humbling to the human psyche as the stars. The vast, impersonal ocean crops up again and again throughout the album. “Black Wave / Bad Vibrations” and “Ocean Of Noise” both tread the same waters, wondering what good human fuckery is in the face of a monolithic force that will always override them without thought or care. “Neon Bible” and “Intervention” both tackle the grim joy of the Christianity of city missions and the inherent hypocrisy embedded in devout evangelical religion. “(Antichrist Television Blues)” furthers this exploration by positing Joe Simpson, father of Jessica, imploring God to treat Joe as his mouthpiece and show His glory by selling his daughter to the entertainment machine “to show the world what you’re doing to me”. “Windowsill” turns away from that same entertainment machine, and from it’s dread implication, Pax Americana. “I don’t want to live in my father’s house no more” he sings, “I don’t want to live in America no more.” “Windowsill” is like “Keep The Car Running” in that it knows that something is coming. Conor Oberst once sang “I Don’t Know When But A Day’s Gonna Come” and all three know that to be true. “World War III, when are you coming for me?” Win Butler sings, and it’s a question that can still be asked a decade on. “No Cars Go” is his answer to all of the above: fuck it, let’s just leave. We’ll find a place where this death trap we’ve created and christened as The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread, Western Civilization can’t find us. No planes no trains no automobiles. No snowmobiles and no skis. No bosses, no bankers, no landlords. “My Body Is A Cage” ends on a more intimate note, something more like what “Crown Of Love” was on Funeral; if you’ve never seen the spaghetti western mash-up video for it, you should look that up right now.
Where the hipsters saw pretension, there actually exists unvarnished emotion and the sound of a band tapping into the zeitgeist. The second accusation is much easier to dismiss. Who doesn’t want to sound like Bruce Springsteen? I mean, he’s the Boss. Plus, this cacophony of instrumentation – these guitars, these church organs, violins, clarinets, keyboards, drums, synthesizers, these massed and stacked and soaring vocals – conjures up all of the power that was latent in the Boss’ music in the 1970s and fills it with glorious noise. When that wall of organ crashes over you (like an ocean wave) on “My Body Is A Cage”, it is at once utterly obliterating and more apocalyptic than even Bruce “There’s no more jobs anymore on account of the economy” Springsteen could have summoned up by 1980. Win Butler and Co. are earnest and straight-talking, up to a point, but their flair for the dramatic is unmatched in any other band, contemporary or classic.
Neon Bible is often the overlooked album in the Arcade Fire canon. Funeral was the critical bombshell; The Suburbs was the mainstream hit; Reflektor was the Defiant Artistic Statement. Neon Bible, meanwhile, doesn’t have an ethos-defining peg to hang from – but it might be their most consistent album, and it hits with the implacable force of a tsunami.