Review Summary: I'm gonna work it out
There's no mistaking it; Arcade Fire have been huge from the start. When you get an endorsement from David Bowie, you're bound to go places. They created waves when they released Funeral, which many consider to be one of the best indie records of the last decade. When they released The Suburbs after this record, they were launched into the mainstream, making a huge upset at the Grammys for best album of the year. It was a great moment, because Arcade Fire never compromised their vision or musical integrity; I can't remember another band as unique as this one worming its way into the public consciousness in a long time (Radiohead comes to mind.)
With Neon Bible, Arcade Fire returned with an album that was thematically richer and more bitter, and much more universal than the personal tragedy that binded the transcendence of Funeral. A main theme in Butlers lyricism took root in this album, that was continued on The Suburbs: Butler is defending himself in the only way he knows, by the act of creation, just almost escaping an apocalyptic and hopeless world by riding the cresting waves of exultant climax that eventually blow apart almost every track here. This is a bracingly desperate call to arms, and Butler is trying his hardest. Yes, the songs are absolutely huge and grandiose, and the reasoning is obvious: it's an earth-shatteringly big album because it wants to do just that; it wants to destroy all the shackles of personal and political oppression, so it plays its ace card straight, and doesn't give a ***. Though it would be undone by the wounded barbs Butler wails at his detractors during The Suburbs, during Neon Bible Arcade Fire want to change the world and realize they can't, so they choose to rebel: they're ***ing loud and passionate, and Butlers voice is beautifully ugly and frail, and Arcade Fire care just as much about the message as they do about the music. Except, in retrospect, after a listen of The Suburbs, Butler defending it seems to somehow tarnish it, and in a contradiction strengthen it: Win Butler is still singing about himself after all.
That's to say, the bombardment the music displays doesn't need to grow on you, but this album demands repeated listens to grasp all of its emotional subtext; it may seem hopeless, but on further listens, its redemptive. On "(Anti-christ Television Blues)", Butler spins a tale about a father exploiting his daughter's musical ability to gain happiness, but this isn't a character piece. This is the harshest self-effacing moment of the album, as the singer realizes he is using his talents as an escape. His panicked yelp at the song's culmination of "Tell me Lord, am I the Antichrist?!" is a heartbreaking cry for acceptance and understanding, an anxious plea for people to understand why this album is the way it is. "The Well and The Lighthouse" is an even more nervous yet scathing explanation, Butler condemning his means of escape as a crime, and stating there is no escape at all. And it's convincing. But listen to the final two tracks. "No Cars Go" is the embodiment of an escape fantasy, with a musical accompaniment that is rightfully out of this world large, and then "My Body Is A Cage" brings it back down to Earth. Butler can't save a world trapped in moral decline and fatigue when he is himself trapped. But you have to listen to him wail that line so convincingly, "Set my body free!!!." A choir enters like angels singing and the music is free and to the heavens above.
Of course, the stupendous power of emotion displayed would really not amount to much without worthy music to dress itself up in. Arcade Fire absolutely come through in this aspect, delivering an orchestral medly of gorgeous bombast. The opening and closing tracks are purposely polar opposites: "Black Mirror" is hazy and lacksadaisacal, while "My Body Is A Cage" is at first claustrophobic and then explodes, ringing out cleanly. Though it all sounds unbearably heavy, the music makes it an enjoyable listen. "Keep The Car Runnin'" is a sprightly indie-pop number with an infectious tambourine in the background. "Neon Bible" creaks and hums softly, shuttering by quickly as an enjoyable respite. "Ocean of Noise" starts with a decidedly Radiohead feel, a meandering and melancholy riff eventually accompanied by deep piano, and ends gloriously as Arcade Fire, all swelling violins and beautiful harmonizing between Butler and Regina Chassagne. Every track displays a masterful combination of indie, alternative, pop, and baroque orchestral music.
Neon Bible is perfect in a way rarely seen; its theme and music go hand in hand flawlessly, and the band never have a misstep. Yes, it can seem relentless, but how else can you be when you're trying to change the world?