Arcade Fire – Neon Bible (Merge)
Arcade Fire has crafted an intellectual, creative, and almost entirely boring second album.
When I hear Funeral, I hear an album born out of necessity. I hear a group so haunted by the spectre of death that the only way to escape its demons is to hide in the sanctity of music. I hear the cold realities of life, set to song, and frantic, paranoid energy.
With Neon Bible, I hear conflict. Not in the music itself, but in the direction. Maybe unsurprisingly, the group sounds unsure where to take the most anticipated indie album of the decade. The result is incohesive and occasionally awkward — most notably in the transition from “Intervention,” the most Funereal track on the album, and “Black Wave/Bad Vibrations,” a sterile, digital song that’s far removed from any semblance of emotion. Likewise, the inclusion of a re-recorded “No Cars Go,” one of the group’s most popular songs, is perplexing. Though it’s hard to deny the song benefits from the greater production and faster tempo, the song’s notoriety immediately separates it from the rest of the album, further damaging Bible‘s concept of a whole.
The second coming of Arcade Fire doesn’t lack inventiveness. Neon Bible is not dumbed-down; the songwriting on Funeral wasn’t a fluke. There are moments of intense creativity, like when “Ocean of Noise” breaks through its dark, lounge atmosphere and a cluster of island horns unfurl. But, while I can appreciate the musicianship involved in such a transition, it doesn’t make me feel anything, and while I can’t speak for anyone else, that’s the sole reason I listen to music. The new direction is subdued and detached, abstract and millennial. It’s difficult to cozy up to.
When the band does get emotional, they sound like they’re doing so because their first album put them in the position of having to. “Antichrist Television Blues” is a raucous number, one of a handful of songs which evoke Springsteen. The tune is catchy, but Butler’s immediacy is entirely unconvincing. When you listen to the lyrics, it’s easy to tell why — he’s singing about Joe Simpson. As in, the father of Jessica and Ashlee. There’s a complete disconnect between the singer and the subject, and it shows.
That, on the whole, is why Neon Bible fails, and was probably doomed to from the start. With Funeral, Arcade Fire released an incredible, incredibly personal album. But it was an album built on epic personal catastrophe, and those just don’t happen everyday. Neon Bible has all the ingredients of a successful second album — it’s shinier, and from a technical standpoint it moves in different directions successfully. But under the surface it sounds hollow, because it has no soul. On their second album, Arcade Fire is interpreting frantic, paranoid energy instead of harnessing it. And those just aren’t the same thing.
• Arcade Fire – “Black Mirror”
• Arcade Fire – “Keep the Car Running”
“Intervention” on SNL
“Keep The Car Running” on SNL
10 thoughts on “Arcade Fire – Neon Bible”
their performance of “Intervention” on SNL was excellent. based on your review, Tom, this sounds like the sort of record you might have to sit with a while before you come to appreciate it: a sleeper. Funeral may have been more immediate, but I’m not convinced Arcade Fire dropped the ball on this one as much as you suggest.
i actually thought both SNL performances were pretty lackluster, given their reputation (and the videos i’d seen previously). the guitar smashing especially seemed REALLY contrived. my wife hated that way worse than i did. the SNL performances were pretty much her first encounter with arcade fire, and i can’t say she walked away loving them.
Nate, it definitely is a sleeper, but keep in mind I spent a considerable amount of time with this album in hopes I’d see whatever’s “hidden” in it, and I still don’t. I know I’m bound to be in the minority on this one, but I’m not trying to be the voice of dissent. I wanted to love this album. Unfortunately that’s not the case. I’m not claiming anything as a fact. Just my personal reaction.
As for thin’s comments, contrived is a word I find myself thinking about a lot with the band lately. At first, the playing “Wake Up” in the crowd after the show thing seemed really cool to me, and spontaneous. When they started doing it after every show, I began to think of that word — contrived. Same thing with the 1-800 number and the release of the lyrics in cryptic manner. It all just seems really inorganic, as if the band is cognizant of its reputation and what its legacy could become. Again, just my personal reaction.
However, I will admit to a gaffe in the review — I ignored “My Body is a Cage,” which I think is really a gem. It’s the only song that moves in a new direction and really moves me, as well.
I don’t think it’s fair of us to ask our indie idols to remain indie idols after we’ve heaped so much praise and attention on them. They’re merely reacting to how we’ve treated them. I think maintaining an overtly humble indie attitude, as if they were unaware of themselves, would be even more contrived. Granted, it’s a hard line to walk. But I think they’ve always been less “indie” than we’ve given them credit for. Are you telling me a band of eight or ten or whatever musicians onstage isn’t ambitious and self-aware? In other contexts that could be considered pompous. What matters most is the musical product. Funeral is an amazing, amazing record, and Neon Bible may not stand up to it, but why or why not is really where their story deserves to be analyzed, in my eyes.
“What matters most is the musical product. Funeral is an amazing, amazing record,
and Neon Bible may not stand up to it, but why or why not is really where their story deserves
to be analyzed, in my eyes.”
That’s why none of that extraneous is included in the review. Just further thought.
And, I really don’t think being “indie” has anything to do with it. I’m all for bands breaking the glass ceiling. The building up to “Neon Bible” is just littered with happenings that remind me a little of things Bono would do — making decisions with public image as top priority — and that has left a bad taste in my mouth. I’ll allow that I’m being judgemental and the band may be totally genuine, but that’s not how it seems to me.
oh i know; i’m not critiquing the review or arguing with you or anything; just discussing. they’re an important band.
If you can’t smash an acoustic guitar to bits on the first blow, you’re just a big pussy with a very bad haircut.
He shoulda gone back there and smashed the xylophone.
Jake, dunno if you’ve ever smashed an acoustic, but a well built/good acoustic guitar is braced quite well, and at times is even stronger than an electric guitar in terms of smashing.
just a lil fyi :)
A public service announcement from Solace: longtime smasher of guitars electric and acoustic.