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Arcade Fire - Neon Bible

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Artist: Arcade Fire

Album: Neon Bible

Label: Merge

Review date: Mar. 12, 2007

"Intervention," perhaps the best song on The Arcade Fire's new Neon Bible, sounds a little like prime U2, along with a string orchestra and a church organist, covering the best Bruce Springsteen song ever written. The lyrics mention so many sweeping and emotionally potent concepts - love, friendship, family, death, organized religion, fear, war - that you could almost just put some of the words in a different order and slap the song on the soundtrack to Saving Private Ryan, and no one would notice.

Okay, I'm full of it: I haven't seen Saving Private Ryan. And one reason why is that I just can't suspend my disbelief through hour after hour of the shallow, cynical, emotionally manipulative depictions of hope and heroism that fill so many dramatic Hollywood blockbusters.

The Arcade Fire is a different story. I love rock music and listen to it all the time, but I know enough about its context and the way it's made that often I just listen for particular moments, or I enjoy it even while I'm taking it apart in my head, or when I feel like I'm hearing something really new and different. That is, when I listen to rock music, I feel very much in control of the experience, and I suspect most Dusted readers do, too. The Arcade Fire, though, can just set me up and spin me like a top. That was true in 2004, when the Montreal septet released its magnificent breakthrough record, Funeral, and it's just as true now, with Neon Bible.

So what is it about the Arcade Fire? After all, this is a band that, by all rights, should be far less interesting than it is. Like those Hollywood blockbusters, the Arcade Fire often seem to be kicking at the dirt of very basic human stuff - love, death and so on - while keeping their own hands clean. Because their music is so relentlessly tasteful, they threaten to project a sort of maturity that's hard to square with their actually being participants in the drama of human emotion, rather than just concerned onlookers.

Win Butler's singing is one reason why this isn't such a problem. As always, his voice is a beautiful thing, leaping abruptly into different registers and shaking when he tries to hit the high notes. Butler's voice projects vulnerability that's not often present in the rest of the band's music, and the Arcade Fire wouldn't be half the band they currently are without his singing.

Also, even though Butler's lyrics often deal with big-screen topics, what he's actually saying wouldn't fly in your usual big-budget film. Go back to "Intervention" for a second - the reason why the words would need to be mixed up for the song to appear in a blockbuster is because the song may be about an intervention against someone whose faith has taken over his life: "Working for the Church while your life falls apart / Singing Hallelujah with the fear in your heart."

Elsewhere, Butler sounds slightly paranoid. On Funeral he mostly kept things small, mourning the deaths of loved ones and examining the relationships among family members; on Neon Bible, he has his eye on the outside world, and he doesn't like what he sees. On "(Antichrist Television Blues)," Butler explains that he doesn't want to "work in a building downtown" because "the planes keep crashing always two by two."

Then on "Windowsill," Butler seems to reject U.S. consumerism and militarism: "Don't wanna fight in a holy war / Don't want the salesmen knocking at my door / I don't wanna live in America no more." The same song contains a tiresome rant against MTV. This lyric and many others like it aren't primarily about politics or culture, but rather their narrators' personal responses to politics and culture. ("(Antichrist Television Blues)," for example, turns out to be about the narrator's daughter, and, eventually, the narrator himself.) These lyrics manage to be broad and yet personal at the same time. Still, it's safe to say that cultural commentary isn't among the Arcade Fire's strengths.

The scope and enormity of the Arcade Fire's music are among the band's greatest strengths, though. Like Sufjan Stevens, Stars, and others, the Arcade Fire are making indie rock that couldn't have existed a decade or so ago, taking advantage of cheaper recording technology (although they probably had a massive recording budget for Neon Bible, which is much more hi-fi than Funeral was) by layering each song with instrument upon instrument until the music feels majestic and huge, and then expanding their stylistic palette to match.

The Arcade Fire is basically a post-punk band at its core - check out the driving eighth notes on "The Well and The Lighthouse," or on the ecstatic "No Cars Go," which rivals Funeral's "Rebellion (Lies)" for its propulsive energy. But there's much more going on here: most obviously, the album is covered with strings, but there's also track after track of Régine Chassagne's backing vocals, which push the songs along and provide texture, much like the "ooh" and "aah" backing vocals on old Motown tunes. The lazy ballad "Ocean of Noise" slowly shuffles in about the same way Funeral's "Crown of Love" did and features lovely use of mariachi-style horns.

Of course, the Arcade Fire's arrangements are only a small part of what makes the band's music such a joy, and what's most important about those arrangements isn't even how they sound, but why they're there. The Arcade Fire's most important feature is its ambition, which is also present in the band's sweeping lyrics and in the quiver in Butler's voice when he tries to hit notes that aren't quite in his range. Neon Bible is so successful because it showcases big ambition without ignoring the small things, which are present in the band's focus on the personal in its lyrics (even when those lyrics initially seem to be about abstract concepts or an entire culture), and, again, in the imperfections in that beautiful voice. If Neon Bible is a Hollywood blockbuster, then it's that rare one that not only features A-list actors and great special effects, but complex, sympathetic characters as well.

By Charlie Wilmoth

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