Sunday, March 11, 2007

Neon Bible

Montreal's finest rock band, The Arcade Fire, has only boosted its reputation as indie hero with the release of their second full-length album. Neon Bible features two songs with partial French lyrics, weightier religious themes, and an expansion of musical sources. "Intervention" pulses with the verve of a pipe organ, while "My Body is a Cage," is backed by a gospel choir. Of course the violin and accordion return. Songs build melodic layers on top of one another until what emerges is much more than the mere parts.

If you dislike analysis of art, you should consider skipping to the last paragraph. If not, then by all means continue.

Perhaps the most significant shift from Funeral is the inclusion of explicitly religious language, imagery and themes. The title track "Neon Bible," seems to struggle with finding the place of Christianity within contemporary culture. The image of the red and black neon bible is something normally found on the Vegas strip rather than in a sanctuary. Does Christianity have to be flashy and exciting to attract attention? Didn't it work for The Passion of the Christ?

In some ways, it all feels antithetical to the image and feel presented by the band. This is not The Killers, Vegas' poster band, one of edgy clothing, makeup trends and power guitar hooks. That's who should have released a record called Neon Bible. Instead, we get the subtle genius of intermingled instruments and the casual fashion sense of a discount vintage shop or a discovered attic. Don't be jealous, Mr. Brightside.

If "Wake Up" established the group as authors of epic anthems, Neon Bible walks the balance beam of personal and universal without losing a sense of urgency or significance. "(Antichrist Television Blues)" tells the personal narrative of a man exploiting his daughter, all the while asking for divine affirmation. "Lord would you send me a sign/'cause I just gotta know if I'm wastin' my time." "Ocean of Noise" is a story of personal reconciliation encompassed by questions of free will versus determinism. "Black Mirror" laments the difficulty in escaping from the perceptions and language of the self. The black mirror "casts my reflection everywhere." Watch out, the black mirror might be you!

Yet throughout, the album manages to escape an introspective focus. "Keep the Car Running" bursts with pace, suggesting a temporance to life on earth, and expressing a sense of dissatisfaction with the way the world is. If anything sounds like a generational anthem, this is it. In this context, the inclusion of "No Cars Go," a revised song from the band's first, self-titled EP, makes perfect sense. I had always taken "No Cars Go," as a reference to Heaven. Like U2's "Where the Streets Have No Name," a literal Heaven may not be the only reference point. Rather, a convergence between earthly and divine—a meditative state—"between the click of the light and the start of the dream." Religious experience, especially in a culture that values bright city lights and shiny packages, is uncommon—but this album takes us there.

This is the best CD I have purchased this year, and I wouldn't be surprised if it survives as one of my all-time favorties.

1 comment:

Dan said...

Brent, have you thought about trying to get some of your music reviews published?