Review Summary: Join the Church of the Arcade Fire, or forever hold your peace...
When I first purchased the limited edition of Neon Bible
, I knew I was in for something out of the ordinary when my hands eagerly examined the cryptic flip-books that came with the packaging, as though I had just discovered some mysterious toy at the bottom of a cereal box…
But don’t let the gimmicks deceive you…Neon Bible
is a blazon, outright cry for humanity – an element either entirely missing from the indie-rock genre, or expressed alternatively in a cotton ball of whimsical symbolism and sentimentality. More far-reaching and profound than the album’s predecessor, Funeral
(2004), the mood of Neon Bible
is bleak and urgent, the message - uplifting. It is an album that breathes; an album that has pores
. And even though only someone like Chris Martin would have the audacity to inaugurate Arcade Fire as “the greatest band in history,” thankfully, we don’t need sir Martin’s approval.
Proceed with caution: welcome to the post-human world of the Neon Bible. From the get go, the album title suggests a growing rift between the secularized world and the realm of spirituality. Surrounded by black mirrors that cast no reflection, rising tides, 3rd world hunger, and security cameras, the lurching figure of Win Butler moans underneath unconventional mixes like an atheist-David Byrne begging for something to in believe
in. His corkscrew vibrato, complete with slight-speech impediment, is reminiscent of an over-tired adolescent struggling to get his words out. His wife and musical collaborator, Régine Chassagne, echoes this sentiment with slightly more modest vocal sighs, singing at times as though the back of her wrist were gracing her forehead in a fainting motion (listen to “Black Wave/Bad Vibrations”).
The album’s lyrical content aims towards a transcendent aesthetic, without being preachy. Far from feeling talked down to, the Anthemic quality of the album compels the listener to pass on the torch of human resilience. For an album that is full of existential conflicts, (“Been workin’ for the church while your family dies”), (“I’m standing on the stage/Of fear and self-doubt/It’s a hollow play/But they’ll clap anyway”), each moment of darkness is returned with a silver lining of explicit beauty and redemption. “Every spark of friendship and love/will die without a home,” Butler delivers in his Springsteen-like hemiola.
Though the majority of critics are weary of the album’s epic proportions, what better way to express the exalted than with such grandiose schemes? It’s rock bombast to parallel Beethoven, peppered with enough organic subtlety to keep itself in rotation for months on end. Pipe organs, tutti orchestral sections, and Floydian-gospel choirs contrast with xylophones, accordion, mandolins, and hurdy-gurdy to create a rootsy indie-goth rock sensibility (much of which might be inspired by Chassagne’s self-proclaimed affinity for Medieval music). The overall effect results in an album that is both intellectually mature, and universally accessible, even if the religious content may cause initial symptoms of squeamishness amongst the hipster community.
So, how can anyone exactly be “Singin’ hallelujah with the fear in your heart” (“Intervention”); yet, still feel satisfied? It seems slightly more difficult than patting yourself on the head while rubbing your tummy. The album’s cry for sincerity and emotional integrity aims at something beyond
aesthetics, and (dare I say) religion, towards a more basic and primal human understanding that still leaves room for a child-like sense of awe and mystery (“I know a place/where no cars go…between the flick of the light and the start of the dream”). Even at the album’s closing, Butler begs for resignation from his temporal-self, “Set my spirit free/set my body free”.
If not a rock opera in itself, the album’s brilliant unity of form and content has the potential to be setup as something akin to an underground classic. The test of time will reveal whether or not Neon Bible will set itself apart as a true work of musical and cultural art; however, as Butler so eloquently warns us (somewhat paradoxically), there is “Not much chance for survival/if the Neon Bible is true.”