Neon Bible a promising work for The Arcade Fire

Whether or not they admit it, anyone reading a review of The Arcade Fire’s new Neon Bible LP has one big question on their mind: does it surpass Funeral? I might as well get that out of the way early. It doesn’t, but that’s not necessarily a weakness. Funeral, The Arcade Fire’s 2004 epic, is the best album of the last five years, and one of the best of all time. It worked because singer Win Butler’s voice dripped with emotion and the guitar, keyboard, and strings amplified his painful wail. More importantly, it worked because it built its tragic mood slowly throughout the album. Neon Bible does not attempt the same sort of emotional continuity as Funeral, and this is where it loses some magic for melodramatic listeners such as myself. However, it does what it sets out to do: it experiments with different song structures while exploring more elaborate orchestration. The album starts with the relatively tame “Black Mirror,” It almost seems as if Butler is warming up in this song; aside from some wonderful howls, one gets the impression that he is reading the lyrics rather than feeling them, a notion I never had while listening to Funeral. The first fifteen minutes is the album’s weakest part, although “weak” is used very relatively when referring to The Arcade Fire. “Black Mirror” is followed by “Keep the Car Running,” which is a fantastic pop song. The third song, also called “Neon Bible,” was the album’s only real disappointment, as it’s mostly an uninspired bass drum beat and Butler’s voice sounds uncharacteristically dry. Fortunately, the fourth song, “Intervention,” is a turning point. The song is led by an organ riff, meshing well with the female backing vocals. Butler’s voice is also at its heartbreaking best. When he wails about how “every spark of friendship and love/will die without a home,” the listener’s feeling is euphoric. The album continues its improvement from there. Track seven, “Ocean of Noise,” sees The Arcade Fire return to the formula that made Funeral so fantastic: It starts with a baseline and keyboard part that could be described as sinisterly funky, but builds tension as it progresses, coming to an imposing climax filled with big drums and strings. The tension spills over to the next song, “The Well and the Lighthouse,” a fast paced track in which Butler’s voice emits so much composed desperation one can’t help but cringe with joy. The wonderful triplet of songs is completed by “(Antichrist Television Blues).” The song is driven by hyperactive guitar strumming, a welcome change from the elaborate soundscapes that preceded it. However, no continuity is lost, and the vocals are still awe-inspiring. Perhaps the worst good thing one can say about Neon Bible is that it ends just as the listener begins to fall in love with it. The last two songs, “No Cars Go,” and “My Body is a Cage,” compete in my mind as the most riveting songs The Arcade Fire has ever released. They also give the album the sense of dramatic closure that the band will surely gain a wide reputation for if there is any justice in this world. “No Cars Go” is perhaps the album’s centerpiece, with intense drumming and simple synthesizer notes creating a majestic, paranoid mood that could be compared to Joy Division in their heyday. Butler and his bandmate/wife Régine Chassagne share vocal duties for a portion of the song, and their voices sound like they’re rubbing together with just enough friction to accompany the song’s eerie vibe. “My Body is a Cage” is organized very differently than “No Cars Go,” but creates a similar haunting mood using only Butler’s incredible voice, sparse organ notes and drumming, and some strings. Neon Bible may not completely please everyone who loved Funeral, but it’s an album for anyone who can appreciate great rock music. The Arcade Fire proved both that Funeral was no fluke, and that they can successfully create new kinds of music without losing their sound. It’s this kind of versatility that makes the group so exciting, and why they might become the great rock band of our generation.