You would think that after a five-night residency at New York’s Judson Memorial Church, an NPR musical spotlight, a joint charity venture with Apple (iTunes) and a recent appearance on Saturday Night Live alongside Rainn Wilson, “Dwight Shrute” to those in the know, that the Arcade Fire would be feeling pretty content with themselves. Thankfully, however, they are not ones for complacency, and harnessing the musical virtuosity and songwriting talent that has garnered praise from David Bowie to David Byrne, they return to the drawing board for their latest release, Neon Bible, an elaborate and epic follow-up to their debut album Funeral.
Neon Bible begins a bit slowly with the bleak “Black Mirror,” rumbling in with a slow startup that is soon overtaken by consistent powerful percussion, alongside contrasting violins. It is evident from the first ambient overtones of the album, the grandeur and energy that Arcade Fire puts into this album far supersedes any of their previous work. Arcade Fire steps on the gas with “Keep the Car Running,” their first single slated for UK release, singer Win Butler’s shaky voice screeching with the utmost urgency against a steady guitar backdrop. The US’s first release “Intervention” is instead a rolling allegory of modern religion, complete with glorious pipe organs, as Butler laments “Working for the church while your life falls apart/ Singing Hallelujah! With a fear in your heart.”
Fortunately, not all the songs on Neon Bible are so drab. Butler’s wife and fellow lead singer Régine Chassagne’s ebullient voice slips in and out of French on “Black Wave / Bad Vibrations” with the song eventually breaking down for Butler to come in and continue the tale of runaway lovers. The next song, “Ocean of Noise,” is one of the more gorgeous songs on the album. With a haunting and somber Caribbean tone running through it, and the piano, slide guitar, and a heavily plucked bass all melding together seamlessly, this song easily solidifies Butler’s sentiment that this entire album is like “standing by the ocean at night.” The Arcade Fire then dive into their bag of tricks, and pull out an incredibly clever adult nursery rhyme, “The Well and the Lighthouse.” Based of La Fontaine’s 17th Century fable, “The Fox, The Wolf and The Well,” Arcade Fire transform the basic ideas of greed and crime in order to explore deeper concepts in human nature regarding life, death and the choices people make — all of course to a rousing energetic melody.
The latter half of the album seems to be a completely different animal, which plummets into painful ennui and dreary blue-collar lives. “Antichrist Television Blues” is an exciting quick-paced romp about a working class dad, hoping that his daughter can avoid the mistakes he made, and become a grand star. Ultimately having pushed his daughter, watching her perform on stage from his tiny TV, the song closes on a sudden painful epiphany. The dad wondering if his actions have made him “the antichrist.” Melodrama aside, Chassagne’s piercing backup vocals are interlaced at the perfect times, cutting in when the strings cut out, culminating in one of the more striking songs on the album. It is immediately followed up by the grave “Windowsill” a song about just overall despondency about living in America, in the suffocating atmosphere of a broken family’s house — the blaring cornets and the softly harmonized violins encapsulating the raw angst and emotion.
The highlight of the album comes with the second to last track, “No Cars Go.” A thrilling revitalization of the song that premiered on their self-titled EP, the tracks exhibits unrestrained puissance, energy that is unrivaled by their earlier rendition. The husband-wife duo of Win and Régine carries the song, along with a bellicose and simply jaw-dropping performance on drums, the sonic assault finally disintegrating into a full choir at its end. On Neon Bible, “No Cars Go” is transformed from an earlier throw away EP track into an anthemic golden hymn, that helps to provide a fitting close on the album.
Overall, the Arcade Fire create a solid, incredibly consistent, and allusion filled sophomore album (the album itself being named after a John Kennedy Toole novel). Palpable storytelling lyrics; vague enough to relate with everyday life, yet feel as if it was made specifically for you, along with music backed by a military choir, and Hungarian orchestra serves as a fantastic recipe for success. This album itself never really lags nor loses pace, except perhaps on the title track, a somber eulogy about a generation becoming complacent in society.
With Neon Bible, Arcade Fire cement themselves as one of the few musical pioneers in today’s lagging musical industry. Their carefully crafted baroque- pop tunes certainly rising above the tide. But Hey! that’s something “us kids know,” right?