Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Music Review : The Arcade Fire - "Neon Bible"

On The Arcade Fire’s 2004 full-length Funeral, the world could be hard and cold and alienating without any reason. For every moment of hope and love with lovers and family members (“Neighborhood #1,” “In the Backseat,”) there were moments of isolation and despair (“Neighborhood #2 (Laika),” or the cheerfully wrapped “Rebellion (Lies)”. Such uncertainty and fatalistic luck (good and bad) dominated Funeral, which was marked by both leading members Win Butler and Régine Chassagne’s marriage and the death of both’s grandparents in close order. The album had a sense of being one of the most perfect farewell’s to youth, both celebratory and uncertain. It also had the unfortunate impact of putting such high expectations on the band that it seemed almost impossible to produce a follow-up that could be as outstanding and build upon the band’s already-rich musical tendencies. However, the keyword here is almost, for Neon Bible is every bit as good, and even better than, Funeral.

A lot has changed since 2004. If Funeral was a farewell to youth and a glance towards an uncertain future, The Arcade Fire’s new album, Neon Bible, finds them in the midst of a world full of death, isolation, and loss with no answers. The moments of numbing isolation and desperation from Funeral have only magnified, but without any of the glimpses of hope. For example, instead of the amazing buildup and celebration of young love “Neighborhood #1” that opened Funeral, Neon Bible opens “Black Mirror” and Butler’s numb, mumbled demand for the “Mirror Mirror on the wall/Show me where them bombs will fall”. On Neon Bible, the world is a scary place, both globally (the title track’s declaration that there is “Not much chance for survival/If the Neon Bible is Right”) and personally (such as “Ocean of Noise,” in which Butler resigns himself to a lost love by claiming that “You’ve got your reasons/and me, I’ve got mine/but all the reasons I gave/were just lies to by myself some time”). On the outstanding, Springsteen-like delivery of “(Antichrist Television Blues),” Butler turns to God for answers, and finding none, the song comes to a crashing halt as Butler asks if he is just the anti-Christ. One looks for hope, but for the first 9 tracks, there is none. Only with the last two songs we see some hope. The escapism of “No Cars Go” (an amazing, vibrantly re-produced version of the already-good song that they first did on their 2003 EP) reminds one of the hope to be found in the rally-cry of Funeral’s “Wake Up”. However, even such optimism is tempered in the album closer, “My Body Is a Cage,” in which “I’m living in an age/that calls darkness light” and in which “fear keeps me moving.” The album closes with Butler imploring to “set my spirit free,” but whether anybody or any force will remains to be seen.

<>Musically, The Arcade Fire have done as perfect a job as they could. With Funeral, critics and fans looked to them as the “saviors” of rock (memo to journalists: rock doesn’t need saving. It’s doing fine, thank you very much. It’s just always changing – the Beatles and the Who won’t happen again, get over it). Oftentimes, such expectations wipe out a band, but the Arcade Fire have done a perfect job of continuing with their full, lush sounds (such as orchestra, church organs, etc. - they aren't a band to shy away from musical majesty and grandeur), all wonderfully arranged by Chassagne. However, they haven’t gotten comfortable with their sound, either. Here, there are greater levels of distortion, reverb, and murky sound, adding to the panic and showing sonic exploration on the part of the band without stretching beyond their limits. Thus, while “Black Mirror” is muddy, lacking the clarity of Funeral’s opener, we still get the orchestrated, glorious buildups (“Intervention,” “(Antichrist Television Blues)”, “My Body Is a Cage,”), but we also get better quiet moments than anything on Funeral (“Ocean of Noise,” “Black Waves/Bad Vibrations”). The desperation of which we got a glimpse in Funeral (such as the resignation of “Neighborhood #2” and “Rebellion (Lies)”) is in full force on Neon Bible. – “Ocean of Noise,” “The Well and the Lighthouse,” “(Antichrist Televison Blues)”. If there is any complaint about Funeral, it got a bit slow in the middle, but the group has magnificently learned. While it doesn't reveal it's excellence as immediately as Funeral did, Neon Bible never lets up, and proves itself even more durable. The variation from song to song is greater, and it never loses the momentum and interest of the listener. Although they only have two full-lengths and one EP in the bag thus far, if the band continues as it has, then we can safely say, without hyperbole, The Arcade Fire are making a strong case to be one of the best bands of the first decade or two (or more) of this century.

6 square glasses (out of 6)