Three years ago, the Montreal-based Arcade Fire released Funeral, an album that would garner an avalanche of critical acclaim and appear on countless “Best Of” lists, mine included. And now, Win Butler and the rest of the Fire have returned with Neon Bible. Though less bombastic and fiery than Funeral — you won’t find anything quite as driving or overwhelming as “Wake Up!” or “Neighborhood #3” — their latest is no less powerful.
Indeed, its relatively subdued nature makes it even better at getting under your skin, and penetrating to the heart of the matter, than its predecessor.
In a recent Chicago Tribune article, Butler claimed the album’s central theme is “this idea that Christianity and consumerism are completely compatible, which I think is the great insanity of our times.” An audacious statement to be sure, one that could even be considered blasphemous in our modern, all too superficial society. And yet, time and again, the Arcade Fire peel back the veneer, revealing the world for the ugliness that it is — even as they hope and yearn for something better.
“Black Mirror” quickly sets the album’s tone, both musically and lyrically. Brooding atmospherics give way to pounding drums and piano as Butler sings, in a strained, breaking whisper “I walked down to the ocean/After waking from a nightmare.” But even a nightmare seems to be better than what he sees, and judgment is announced:
The black mirror knows no reflection
It knows not pride or vanity
It cares not about your dreams
It cares not for your pyramid schemes…
The curse is never broken
And the reason for this judgment? Look no further than the title track, one whose sentiment is directly related to Butler’s earlier quote. I doubt it’s a coincidence that Butler sings of both a “neon” Bible and a “golden calf” in the same song. False hopes and gods, both of them, idols of their age. Butler sings of a society confused about truth, about good and evil; “A vial of hope and a vial of pain/In the light they both looked the same.” Later, Butler lays out the grim reality: “It was wrong but you said it was right… Not much chance for survival/If the Neon Bible is true.”
And on it goes. Butler sees corruption everywhere he looks — even within himself. “Ocean Of Noise” is the album’s most haunting track, a lament for the failing of relationships. But the lyrics place the blame squarely on Butler, with such lines as “You’ve got your reasons/And me I’ve got mine/But all the reasons I gave/Were just lies to buy myself some time.”
Depending on how you read the song’s lyrics, the “you” could be a lover, a friend, a comrade-in-arms, or perhaps even the Almighty Himself. Whatever the case, the song’s final refrain — “I’m gonna work it out/‘Cause time wont work it out for you/I’m gonna work it on out” — seems less triumphant than the surging trumpets and choral vocals might imply. Rather, given the rest of the song, they seem bittersweet and even futile.
Things pick up a bit with “(Antichrist Television Blues),” a stomping, soulful rock n’ roll number that is about — of all things — “a good Christian man” striking a bargain with the Lord to make his daughter a pop star.
Although the lyrics seem a little heavy-handed at times, even by Arcade Fire standards, it’s still a searing indictment of those who confess to serve the Lord even as they seek to use His blessings for their own gain. One can imagine the song is as much about televangelists who pronounce God’s judgment upon the world and religious leaders who use their authority to inflict wickedness on their most innocent followers, as it is about a father hoping his little girl makes it big on the stage.
It’s all so much, the only thing left is escape. Which brings us the album’s climax, “No Cars Go.” Although not a new song — it originally appeared on a self-titled EP in 2003 — it’s reworked a bit here and given a soaring Broadway musical opening. Here, Butler and co-vocalist (and wife) Régine Chassagne sing their call to arms: “We know a place where no planes go/We know a place where no ships go.”
But is it a call to arms so much as a call to escape the modern world? “Little babies? Let’s go! Women and children? Let’s go! Old folks? Let’s go!” Butler and Chassagne cry out. One can almost see them there on the threshold, gesturing madly and pointing the way to all those following them even as they confess, “Don’t know where we’re going.”
But then again, anywhere is better than the world as described in the preceding songs. “Windowsill” serves as a perfect foil for “No Cars Go,” with Butler singing through a list of myriad objections, fears, and anxieties:
Don’t wanna fight in a holy war
Don’t want the salesmen knocking at my door
I don’t wanna live in America no more
‘Cause the tide is high and it’s rising still
And I don’t wanna see it at my windowsill
One can almost imagine him hunched over, shaking with paranoia as he sings, shaking, “Why is the night so still? Why did I take the pill? Because I don’t wanna see it at my windowsill.”
Some have raised issue with the album’s final track, “My Body Is A Cage,” claiming that it’s something of a letdown from the anthemic rush of “No Cars Go.” I disagree. The song strikes me a perfect end to the album, a final moment of introspection as Butler lays out his heart for all to see. It all comes down to this:
My body is a cage that keeps me
From dancing with the one I love
But my mind holds the key…
I’m living in an age that calls darkness light.
In the same interview mentioned earlier, Butler states that the goal of this album is to raise the important questions, questions such as “What if there is a genuine deep, dark evil in the world?” It’s a question that seems increasingly pertinent with each passing day, with each passing headline, but one whose implications are rarely given a passing thought. We live in an age where wrong is right, evil is good, up is down. We’ve lost our way, and even our noblest intentions are spoiled by greed, corruption, and consumerism. And so it’s only fitting that the album closes with one final request, one final plea:
Set my spirit free.
Sadly, it’s almost become a cliché to say this, but it’s so refreshing and bracing to have a band that finally says something of depth in their music. Do the Arcade Fire sometimes become too ambitious and overreach themselves? Do they sometimes attempt to cram too much into their songs? Do they sometimes come off less as musicians, and more like wild-eyed prophets? Well, the answer is unequivocally yes. Maybe not so much here as on Funeral, but still yes. But is that a bad thing?
As Flannery O’Connor once said, “to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.” This could easily be Arcade Fire’s modus operandi. We’ve become numb to our own situation, too afraid — or placated — to cry at our own plight, regardless of how dark it might be. And then along come Win Butler and his bandmates, shouting their hearts out and painting, with their lyrics, some of the most startling figures in rock n’ roll today. And thank the good Lord for it.