' ' Cinema Romantico: Oh, How I Love My Neon Bible

Friday, March 09, 2007

Oh, How I Love My Neon Bible

So it has arrived. It is at my home. It is on my Ipod. I have listened to It a dozen times, if not more. By “it” I mean the second most anticipated album release of my life, right after Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising” back in 2002.

“Neon Bible” by The Arcade Fire.

Does it live up to the enormous expectations which have gestated in my melodramatic head at least since I left the Riviera Theater in September 2005 after an Arcade Fire show ready and willing to proclaim them the greatest thing (not band) but thing in the history of the planet earth?

It does. It’s different from "Funeral", their first record, and it should be that way. It is dark and angry. It is foreboding. They are not, as one might say, happy campers. As Win Butler sings at one point, "Who here still believes in choice? Not I."

Now their first album was also dark and angry but it felt much more like a youthful darkness and anger. We’re upset, sure, but we’re gonna’ sing at the tops of our lungs and then we’re gonna’ feel better. On “Neon Bible” it feels more like they’re singing at the tops of their lungs not so that they can feel better but so that they can merely maintain their sanity.

“Professional” rock critics will most likely refer to this as anger via “post-fame”. You know, you become one of the most successful (okay, critically acclaimed and cultish) bands in the world and you react to it. You wonder if you will still be able to make music the way you want to make it.

(It's worth noting The Arcade Fire spurned every major label to stay with their current record company in order to maintain artistic freedom rather than make more money.)

But even though the album is dark, it is also hopeful. Contrary to popular belief, these things can co-exist. I've been listening a lot to the album most critics felt was 2006's best, "Return to Cookie Mountain" by TV on the Radio. It's a fantastic album, no doubt, but it too is dark. And challenging. Not an easy listen. And only listenable in certain situations. But I can't imagine a situation in which I wouldn't want to listen to "Neon Bible". Despite the darkness there is still always a light.

I've heard comparisons made between Bruce Springsteen and "Neon Bible". This is primarily, I think, because of the anthemic quality of some of the songs. But there's another comparison to make and it goes back to "Funeral". The Arcade Fire is the only musical entity I've ever found outside Bruce Springsteen that seems to so easily be able to inspire despite the bleakness in their music.

On "Neon Bible" they employ instruments of all shapes and sizes. If you happened to catch their appearance on Saturday Night Live a couple weeks ago you would have seen that only did they bring out a glockenspiel but the indomitable Regine Chassagne also rocked out on the hurdy-gurdy (yes, really). But none of this feels gimmicky. Everything is designed to fit in its place. The this-is-what-all-music-should-sound-like “Intervention” makes prominent and spectacular use of a pipe organ. It lends a certain majesty to the tune and offers up a great juxtaposition to a line such as “working for the church while your life falls apart.”

“The Well and The Lighthouse” starts out as a hard-rockin’ ditty but transforms into doo-wop at the end. The astonishing “Ocean of Noise” is a little surf-rock, a little Pixies-ish at the beginning, before breaking into a killer piano solo, and then concluding with a brass section that would be right at home in a spaghetti western movie. Then you’ve got “Antichrist Television Blues” which is a biting example of post-modern rockabilly (I just made that up - I don't even know what it means) filtered through Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues".

The follow-up to a groundbreaking album should deepen a band’s sound, gain complexity, revel in the audacity to experiment. You only have one go-around with that second album - one opportunity to attempt anything. It is also the time for a band to truly forge its identity. Do you aim for sales and thus play it safe by copying your previous formula? Or do you aim for the bigger game and thus risk it all?

One winter’s night many moons ago at Chicago’s own Burrwood Tap I proclaimed (as I’m wont to do) that The Arcade Fire was the band meant to save rock ‘n roll. After “Neon Bible” I’m even more sure of it.

1 comment:

dan said...

Man, I couldn't agree more. Maybe ocean of noise is a reference to pixie's mountain of sound?

Great album. My current favorite track is Antichrist Television Blues, dylan's subterranean homesick and randy newman but the "now I'm overcome" is pure Arcade Fire, maybe that's the light at the end of the tunnel you're talking about.

By the way, been enjoying your regularly scheduled movie reviews. Good stuff...

Dan