Friday, March 02, 2007

Postmortem: Arcade Fire "Neon Bible"

"Between the click of the light and the start of the dream"

That comes from "No Cars Go," the best track on Arcade Fire's second Long Player, Neon Bible. It's a curious passage, really--and, essentially, how I have always viewed the band: the quiet calm that occurs before something huge happens. It could be tragic or happy, but there is always that moment. And that quiet moment isn't really quiet at all; it's deafening with its implications. For lack of a better description, I've always thought of Arcade Fire as the music you would hear in the waiting room for heaven. Ridiculous, right? I'm not so sure. To clarify, I'm not implying that their music is divine or angelic. In fact, it is nervous and sorrowful; unsure of what is to come or what to expect, and that's the key. Arcade Fire are always able to interject these bizarre feelings of hopeful hopelessness in you that initially appear laughable but find a way to stay with you; they find a way to comfort you.

Neon Bible takes its title from John Kennedy Toole's first (previously unpublished) novel which he penned at the tender age of sixteen. In certain ways, you could see the parallels between the novel and the album. Not so much for similarity in story or theme, but within the forgivable liberties they both take with human drama. While Kennedy was merely a boy when he wrote the book, melodrama flowed through him like water onto a canvas. As any fan of the group can attest, Arcade Fire are no different.

Their version of Neon Bible isn't what one would call a concept album, but that's not to say their isn't a story here. Where Funeral was very much rooted in reality and mortality, Neon Bible takes its cue from dreamscapes and sinister fantasies. Even though songs like, say, "Intervention" or, "(Antichrist Television Blues)" seem to play out like a working class requiems, and there is a fairly strong anti-war sentiment all over the album, Butler helps keep the presentation of any themes throughout Neon Bible almost exclusively residing in the clouds. It makes for a compelling experience because, while it thematically exhausts all of Arcade Fire's old tricks, it forces you to spot the new ones.

As big and as borderline farcical (in terms of dramatics) as anything Arcade Fire have delivered in the past, Neon Bible, if not their best work, is certainly their most cerebral. Musically, it tries to take some new direction utilizing a myriad of instrumentation that would seem out of place in almost any other band that knew how to spell "s-u-b-t-l-e." Here, however, it tends to add some welcome flavor to the already successful Funeral formula. The war Arcade Fire wages, though, is always one of the heart; and that heart is always delivered by Win Butler. At this point, it's not even that emotes as much as he, himself, becomes exhilarating sadness. That sounds weird and it IS weird. Oddly, it all usually works with this band. There are certain elements that simply make Arcade Fire who they are: unintentionally campy dramatics is just one of them. The brilliance of their staying power, lies in the fact that because the silliness is unintentional, it becomes all the more endearing to self satisfying artistic types who find emotion laughable. This particular element is delivered in abundance on Neon Bible.

This isn't the best album of the year, and probably not the best album Arcade Fire will end up releasing. It does, however, have moments of uncommon beauty and charming, stilted emotion that helps keep it close to your heart. It doesn't have quite the resonance that Funeral initially had, but, then again, neither does Funeral. As a separate, cohesive work, Neon Bible stands on it's own quite nicely, and is certainly destined to be one of the most memorable release of 2007. Arcade Fire have created a crowning achievement of pain and atonement. Between the click of the light and the start of the dream, Arcade Fire want to ease the transition for you as best as they can.


David Sims said...

Good review man, basically agree with you on this one (although my favorite is "Keep the Car Running", which sounds more definitively different/exciting IMO. Although "No Cars Go" is great.

The album is about half-grown on me, but I've already started skipping most of the tracks when I listen to it. I don't think it's gonna be as impactful as Funeral, but a pretty nice second album.

Daniel said...

I actually found it a bit more listenable on repeated listens. I DO think that the production seems a bit too meticulous for the stylistic choices that were made regarding the music, but I have very few problems with the overall pacing. Again, this isn't jump-out-of-your-seat good, but I think it solidifies them as a consistent, reliable, mildly original rock force.