CD REVIEW 'Neon Bible' Catalogues Faith Unrewarded
Arcade Fire's Sophomore Release Unsettling and Unsettled
Produced by Arcade Fire
In the liner notes to the Arcade Fire's debut album, Funeral, there's a remark on how the band was mindful of "the irony of their first full length recording bearing a name with such closure." It's an aspect of the title not hard to notice on your own, but I saw it as only being half the story behind the title and the album.
When seeking "closure" — whether it's for the passing of a friend, relative or relationship — what are you really looking to put an end to? The end has already happened (at the moment of death, separation, or disappearance), and your time since then is a lingering afterimage. It's not until there's a burial — figurative or actual — that the fog clears and you can re-gather what's left of what you once were. The moment of closure is the beginning of the rest of your life.
To me, Arcade Fire's Funeral was a veiled celebration of that fact. After a series of impossibly maudlin verses, a track on Funeral like "Crown of Love" culminates in an outburst of unbridled joy that is nothing short of revelatory. When singer Win Butler finally confesses "your name is the only word that I can say!" he liberates his mind and body into an exultation that can only be achieved once all his inhibitions have been hurled aside.
Unfortunately, to cling to a hopeless situation is just too … comfortable. Sometimes it takes more courage than we have to cut ourselves loose, when there are no guarantees that it'll pay off. Based on what I gather from Neon Bible, Arcade Fire's latest album, the band has probably realized this. While the mentality of Funeral is underpinned by a faith in the cinematically redeeming nature of a life experience, Neon Bible concedes the truth that we spend our whole lives avoiding: some suffering is and always will be with you, and if you manage to get a learning experience out of it, then good for you, but you can't keep it away for long.
The opening track of Neon Bible, "Black Mirror," is both our bridge from the previous record and also the album's declaration of ideology. The familiar strokes are there: husband and wife team, Win and Régine, quiver through string-punctuated drama, and then, as listeners have come to expect from their lyrics, unexpected French breaks forth! With the eponymous "miroir cassé" (broken mirror) in fragments, no one is left to turn to for answers, either inwardly or externally.
The grim realizations continue into the hymnal "Intervention," where the lyrics are as candid as anything we've seen from the band. "Working for a church while your family dies" is an excessively blunt line, but at least it gets the message across. Arcade Fire isn't mourning a world of reason — the world has always been maliciously reasonable — instead, the just world that they thought they had a grasp on (and faith in) pulled a vanishing act on its own whim. Faith had its use as a temporary salve, but now the band and its listeners get to watch as "the king's taken back the throne" and hear "the soldier groan all quiet and alone," recalling the existential horror of World War I trench warfare — a chapter in our history now cruelly resurrected.
Neon Bible turns out to be somewhat less satisfying a record than its predecessor. The metaphors are less charming and frequently more transparent than they were on Funeral, and the tension-then-payoff mantra of the older material is frustratingly inverted this time around, with "Intervention" the first of a litany of offenders. Not much on the record compares to the allure of that initial blast of pipe organ. It burns brightly only long enough for the band's acolytes to briefly warm their hands over before it flickers and dies. That "Intervention" can't live up to the transcendence it promises is a small complaint (it's still an album highlight), but some of the next tracks fall into a similar pattern of eager build-up with inexplicably arrested momentum. It's as if the band were forcing itself to assemble more sophisticated song structures instead of letting the songs write themselves.
Of those songs, "The Well and the Lighthouse" falls the most into the built-in groove it carves for itself. The brisk first half teases the listener into believing he's found the centerpiece of the album, deceptively including gems like "I'm serving time all for a crime I did commit/ You want the truth?/ You know I'd do it all again" over a hyperventilating bass line. Régine's cries of "what you fear/ what you fear" in the background turn out to be a false climax, as the song wrenchingly puts on the brakes and transforms into a perplexing sort of waltz. At best, it's a missed opportunity. Realistically, it's a mistake the band didn't need to make, and it's not the last one they make on Neon Bible.
Arcade Fire likely intended "No Cars Go" to be the ultimate payoff of the album. As a stand-alone single, the track is magnificent — everything one could ask for from the band. Unfortunately, this is actually a new performance of an old song — one of their first, in fact. The experience of listening to it shouldn't be missed by any Arcade Fire fan and also serves as a great introduction to the band, but hearing it on this album so long after its initial release gives the unshakeable impression of the song as a reprise. It compromises the album as a whole the same way that the presence of a cover song would. Although "No Cars Go" is admittedly improved in this version, its inclusion is still a misguided act of fan service.
That Neon Bible encountered such troubles is disappointing, but there will be few other albums released this year in the same league. The redemption of Neon Bible comes in the unlikeliest of places with the charging acoustic number "(Antichrist Television Blues)," in which the protagonist frantically spills out his fear of continuing with the ongoing tragedy of a life without some kind of sign that his paranoia and piety will be part of some ultimate design by the end of his life, or at least for his children. It is the soul of Neon Bible laid out in all its honesty, and it lifts the album's second half from its mire.
Voltaire's ever-theorizing protagonist Candide would rationalize such calamities and despair as nothing more than "the shadows in a beautiful picture" that are necessary for the existence of "the best of all possible worlds" in which all are privileged to live. I would disagree; after all, "those shadows … are horrible blemishes." With Neon Bible, Arcade Fire reaches this less sunny conclusion as well. A sacred world exists solely, if at all, within the buttresses of a cathedral, and only as far as its organ can drone. Just look at the album cover: a Bible awkwardly splayed apart tries vainly to radiate its pages' divinity to the rest of the world but its glow fails in the face of an impossible task.