Review Summary: now who here among us still believes in choice?
It’s kind of sad, but I don’t think I have any opinions. Or, at least, I don’t think I have any that belong to me. I can’t think of a book I’ve read that I haven’t asked of others its worth or its literary relevance. I can’t think of a political opinion I didn’t steal from my brother. I can’t think of a musical obsession I had that wasn’t born from hype. I can’t help but feel a little useless about the whole thing because, quite simply, I don’t think I’ve made up my own mind about anything.
And that is why I'm so glad Neon Bible
exists. Butler’s rock opera is just that: profoundly and devastatingly useless. Neon Bible
waves a white flag in the air; the Arcade Fire is outraged in the realisation that its very last ounces of significance have been stripped away, and all they can do is scream out at those who hold claims on the truth. Butler’s lyrics declare himself and all of us powerless, not just over the world we are fighting over to change, but also the rights and wrongs in our head and our control over them. Butler gives up on that control. He gives up on religion, in the now and in the afterlife (“Heaven is only in my head
”). He gives up on society and preachers who will sacrifice anything for their scheme, including their most sacred trait, spirituality (“Tell me lord / am I the antichrist?
”). Most importantly, though, he lets go
. Whether or not you flick through the themes of Neon Bible
and agree to disagree, the album’s debt is to uncertainty and, most importantly, acceptance of that uncertainty. Neon Bible
presents a city of the brainwashed and determined, doing anything for something, be it putting daughters on the stage or selling souls to the church. And the album doesn’t end with some beautiful release from it all, either – nope, Neon Bible
keeps its citizens trapped forever.
That white flag isn’t waved with weary arms, though. No matter how resigned Butler is to all of this, he and his followers surrender with nothing but passion. Neon Bible
shows violence and while it does not indulge in the aggression that runs through its forty-six minutes, it uses it as a means of statement. Butler’s vocals, most notably, sparkle with melodrama. When as loud as he is on “Intervention”, his voice universalises what he is saying and no matter how hopeless his descriptions are, he makes his words monumental. On “Intervention” he dooms his protagonists to fear and the end of love and friendships, but he does so with such immediacy and drama that the song could spew from the world’s most tragic pantomime - hyperbole reigns over this record. It's the only thing other than darkness.
And here’s the thing about Neon Bible
. It’s a record controlled and surrounded by darkness, and maybe the group even focus in upon it and create the record around that absence of light. It certainly feels like it. “Keep The Car Running” tells the story of a man waiting in the dead of night to be taken away, but the conspiracy ultimately turns internally to his fears. “No Cars Go” is a run-away rock opera set in the dead of night with the thrill of escapism. And “Antichrist Television Blues” paints us a metropolis at midnight, with the reverberating guitars only shining artificial light on the buildings downtown. In this sense, Neon Bible
is so unlike Funeral
and just as worthy for its differences: it shows a second shot of Butler and Chassange, and it’s a paranoid one. What’s even more triumphant about Neon Bible
is how this mood is never lost through the orchestral side of the Arcade Fire, in fact it enhances it. Musically, Neon Bible
brings an empty landscape to life, and it is far bigger than the box it is put into. We’ve got flutes, church organs, accordions and thunder effects, and we become cramped into what is a supposedly a dead scene. If anything, Arcade Fire get lost further in their entanglement with baroque pop and their dated sound, and it makes a horror-flick of Neon Bible
People will argue against that, and scoff at Butler and co. for creating a record too grandiose for its own good, but in a sense, isn’t that the point? Where Funeral
looks into the personal loss of the band with reservation and respect, its successor is external, making a social spokesman of Butler and creating something that speaks to everyone regardless of inward experience. He never quite becomes an activist and the anger he shows bubbles on the surface of Neon Bible
, but the passion seeps through every piano note, every choir of voices and every church organ. This record is cyclical with this passion for fear, and where Butler opens his tragedy by warning us that all words will lose their meaning, he closes it with a revelation: that he’s living with us in an age of fear and self-doubt. That fear and self-doubt is what puts Butler’s music at its peak. It's what puts it at its most intense. And it's how he keeps us in line: by creating an album for us
, the kids who squirm at gore and close their eyes until the scary part is over. But for Butler, it never ends. “World War III, when are you coming for me?”