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Following in the footsteps of 2004's Funeral, Montreal rockers Arcade Fire marked their return three years later with 2007's Neon Bible. A triumphant second helping of artful 'indie' rock, there was no denying that something was different this time around.
Whereas Funeral captured Arcade Fire's chaotic live sound with a bunch of disparate and loosely related songs, Neon Bible has more of a fixed overall purpose. Producer Markus Dravs pares down Arcade Fire's sound across a doom-laden group of tunes based around such heavy themes as global terrorism and religion. Big ideas, befitting of a big sound, which Arcade Fire characteristically deliver.
So while the melancholy Funeral was ultimately uplifting, Neon Bible is steeped in post-9/11 paranoia, revealing feelings of mistrust on songs such as 'Keep The Car Running' and the somehow intimate yet also bombastic tune 'Antichrist Television Blues'. Corrupt powers are on frontman Win Butler's mind, with the U.S. a particular target for the Texan (on 'Windowsill' he cries "I don't want to live in America no more"). Neon Bible is the product of some dark feelings; where Funeral spoke of glorious escape, songs here tell of being trapped. Feelings of solitude are implied throughout in a stark contrast to the 'Neighbourhood' quartet of songs on the band's debut album, and where Win Butler and co. once dreamed of communities rallying together in a blackout, Neon Bible imagines soldiers "working for the church while your family dies" on 'Intervention'.
There is fantastic imagery here - all the talk of black mirrors and bleak nightmares - all brought to life by that unmistakable Arcade Fire sound, and what a sound it is. As ever, the band's catalogue of instruments is extensive (with the hurdy-gurdy and church organ added to the usual roster alongside the string, drum and brass numbers), though an obvious influence from Bruce Springsteen sees the guitar get more of a work-out this time around. As on Funeral, Arcade Fire aren't afraid to throw everything into the mix and see what happens, though Neon Bible has the band reign their more crazed tendencies in for a more controlled affair.
Even more controlled is lead singer Win Butler's voice. While Neon Bible requires a few listens to truly reveal Arcade Fire's great work here instrumentally, Butler immediately shines brighter here than he ever has done before. 'My Body Is A Cage' displays it well, Butler's voice trembling with suppressed pain before exploding, soaring at the song's climax. Even Regine Chassagne is improved vocally, though she is wisely always aided by Butler's superior vocals.
Interestingly, Arcade Fire also produce arguably their first conventional-sounding pop song on Neon Bible. A straightforward tune with some catchy hooks, 'Keep The Car Running' is one of Arcade Fire's best tunes and also perhaps their most accessible piece of work to date. It bodes well for them commercially that on this song, and others on Neon Bible, Arcade Fire manage to retain the spirit of the band on something that sounds like it could actually receive airplay.
While Neon Bible may not be as immediately accessible as its predecessor, a few additional listens reveal it as a deep, dark and angry record with some catchy rhythms, worthily sitting by Funeral's side as an altogether different beast, yet undeniably one of Arcade Fire's own. This is a magnificent second album.
Neon Bible by Arcade Fire came out back in 2007. I had always liked the band but never bought any of their albums. When I heard a few of the releases on here though I thought it was time to get a copy of this one. Arcade fire are quite an unusual band, they release some very strange sounding songs so I was not sure what to expect. Anyway here is what I thought of the songs:
1. Black Mirror - A typical song from the band. There are lots of instruments in this one and it has a big sound to it. The band have loads of members and they all combine in this one. However the words lack any imagination and its a pretty average song overall. 3/5
2. Keep The Car Running - The main reason I bought this album. A magical song, the music really sweeps you up and gets you tapping along. Some nice lyrics and a really good sound. This is a really good happy song that always makes me smile. A fresh sound that kind of makes your head buzz in a really good way! 5/5
3. Neon Bible - This one is quite slow and laid back. However it does have quite a dark sound to it and some menacing lyrics. I'm not a big fan of this song and think its one of the poorer ones on the album. You would expect more from the title track! 2/5
4. Intervention - Another real stonker of a song. There are so many sounds on this one that combine to give it a wonderful sound. The lyrics are really good and very powerful. This was another song they released that really convinced me to buy the album! 5/5
5. Black Wave - Some female vocals kick this one off. The song changes about half way through and sounds a little different. More big sounds and some angelic backing vocals. However it all feels somewhat disjointed. 3/5
6. Ocean Of Noise - This one is very slow and understated. Pretty boring and it really has little going for it in truth. I usually skip this one! 2/5
7. The Well And The Lighthouse - The pace picks up in this one. Some great vocals and nice backing singing. This is another one that moves at a good pace and has a happy kind of feel to it. A good song. 4/5
8. Antichrist Television Blues - A great song. This one is much like the other songs that are great on here. It flows really well and all the music fits together brilliantly. Some clever lyrics and another good vocal performance. 4/5
9. Windowsill - A nice melody to this one. Its quite a simple song compared to most on the album. It works really well though and sounds really vibrant. The lyrics are excellent in this one and its a really nice song. 4/5
10. No Cars Go - This song is epic. Everyone gets involved in this song and it sounds really spectacular. The words are simple but clever and it all combines very well. I love the strings in this one as they sound so dramatic. An excellent song. 4/5
11. My Body Is A Cage - The last song and not a great one. This is really dark and slow. There is little music in this one and it just sounds miserable. I'm not keen on the lyrics and what music there is does little for me, poor end to the album. 2/5
Overall its a pretty mixed album. There are some really good songs on here that I enjoy but there are also some really weak ones that I hate. Arcade Fire are that kind of band though, you either love them or hate them. If your into the band you will enjoy this album for the most part, however if your not steer well clear of it!
I bought this album on the strength of some reviews I had read in the music magazines at the time of release, although I admit I must have been living in a cave for some time as I had not heard Funeral before. Therefore, I came to this with open eyes and ears and no expectations or preconceptions.
This isn't easy listening, but it's certainly worth the effort. Most notably, the incredibly powerful My Body Is A Cage; who'd have thought a cathedral organ would sound so perfect in a modern indie recording? It's a breathtaking song and easily the best on the album and an instant classic.
The lyrics to all the songs hark back slighlty to a different time, and have a great deal of depth and perception to them. I really enjoyed listening to them as they made me think.
An absolutely brilliant album; one of the best of 2007 and a modern classic.
Neon Bible is far less of a soap opera than the groups debut release, but while the follow up might seem a touch understated at first, the quality shines through and there's more than enough top tracks to make it a winner.
The epic No Cars Go is perhaps the highlight of the set, which makes use of an exhilarating backing choir, but on the whole the album a more straight forward feel than what I had expected - which isn't necessarily a criticism.
This mere fact will perhaps broaden the appeal of band in the long run, but tracks like the excellent closing My Body Is A Cage really differentiate and endear the group to people like myself. Arcade Fire are certainly an unusual group / project and while their music can be related to by many, I like the fact that they haven't resorted to trying to make their music more mainstream.
Neon Bible by Arcade Fire (2007)
On Antichrist Television Blues, Win Butler's plaintive hallow voice perfectly impersonates the blue collar longing of the working heroes of Bruce Springsteen's America in the post-Vietnam seventies, as evoked on such seminal records as Darkness on the Edge of Town and The River. But thirty years has eroded the once resonant wave of hope that sprung from those badlands and lit the path to the American dream. Post 9/11 the haunting soundtrack to the bleak post-industrial landscape, now suffused with media madness, remains basically unchanged (with a fifties tint and eighties production), but salvation no longer lies in the arms of childhood sweethearts named Wendy or Mary, charging out of town on highways full of souped-up motor cars. Instead this broken grown man, who never went anywhere, prays to God and implores him to make his child daughter a stage star, who looks old for her age to the men who will make sure she works hard to get paid. There might even be a musical nod to Dancing Queen by ABBA. At the end of the song, Butler's vocal story and possibly the whole of America dissolves into barely controlled demonic anger. "Am I the Antichrist?" he abruptly leers like Johnny Rotten, who was there all along.
On Black Wave/Bad Vibrations, Black Wave belatedly gives voice to the girl's motivation for being born to run, before Bad Vibrations (The Beach Boys reference is obvious) urges the boy to turn back, offering a nightmare tsunami vision of hope being buried beneath the remorseless avalanche of west coast Mexican surf. The following song, Ocean of Noise, suggests the more sombre reality of when you reach that place where you really want to go and the dream of walking in the sun finally fades.
Intervention and Windowsill further add to the Springsteen homage with such aplomb that The Killers should feel concerned that their recent tip of the hat looks distinctly amateurish by comparison, although why the Boss has suddenly sprung to such prominence with the Iraq generation should be apparent; his current barn burning live shows provide an inclusive and passionate voice with an established protest pedigree, which he has enhanced himself by raiding the American canon for inspiration from such figures as John Steinbeck, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie; and he was one of the few American artists of any discipline who provided an immediate and important reaction to the World Trade Centre Bombing. Only Green Day and Neil Young can point to similar creative statements amongst North American music royalty in the wake of that catastrophe. Young is too much of a maverick, and besides, his musical style already infected Pearl Jam's generation a decade ago. Green Day are too modern a confection to yet provide serious territory for nostalgic musical experimentation; thus far their imitators specialise in mere pastiche.
But when Springsteen stepped into the moment he resembled nothing less than an elder statesman with a socially significant message that combined values and harsh truths with a rousing and uplifting stage performance. And his back catalogue is ripe for being rifled by the kids of the eighties who have their own bands now and remember Born in the USA and Dancing in the Dark on the radio, and who are searching for strange musical parallels to reflect the uncanny real life resemblance between their own paranoid age of stolen elections, Bush's War on Terror, Iraq and the looming oil stand off between the West and Iran; and the events of the Vietnam and Watergate era under Nixon and Ford, and even the Iranian hostage crisis and the escalation of the Cold War under Carter and Reagan.
On Neon Bible it feels as if the first time these awful issues actually mattered, but now there pervades a suspicion that the old agendas are merely being rehashed unnecessarily, in a country whose dreams and ideals and ideas have decayed and where hope has abandoned the common man to a life of toil that lacks privacy and dignity, and from which he wants to escape and run away, but he knows not why, or where, or to what any more, and so he no longer believes he can, leaving the young to be young and shiftlessly angry at their empty culture, whilst the old have grown old and gone hopelessly mad with frustrated resentment at what they never wished to become.
Springsteen once asked is a dream a lie if it don't come true or is it something worse. On Neon Bible, none of the dreams came true and they were all lies. What's worse, the children of those people are now scared or have forgotten to dream at all, because they don't know or believe that anything is true. What remains is a choice between nothing, or warped media fantasies thrust on the young by greedy adults. My Body Is A Cage seems to end the record on a particularly harrowing note.
Yet this is to paint a bleaker record than it is. Somewhere deep within seems to rest a resourcefulness of the human spirit, waiting to be untapped from across the ages, perhaps lurking in the band's unfashionable penchant for the archaic and the traditional, so that in the face of the modern chaos of distortion and reverb, a sonically obscure gothic church flourishes with faith in the background, spreading comfort and resilience with its organs and accordions, violins and mandolins, choirs and orchestras, teaching by the end of the last song that the road to redemption this time cannot be traversed by excited lovers in their automobiles, but rather the key is learning to unlock the spiritual cages we today build around our hearts to prevent ourselves dying of the fear of living.
On this and other songs Arcade Fire fashion a sound more distinctly their own, from which singles have been culled, although the most catchy and optimistic cut, Keep the Car Running, does have the Boss's fingerprints as well. Springsteen aside, Neon Bible's other big musical debts remain The Pixies, Talking Heads and Low era Bowie. On first listen, the whole record does lack the urgent immediacy of Funeral, and there are no anthems cut from quite the same cloth as Wake Up or Rebellion, but gradually this strange collection of claustrophobic urban hymns blossoms with unusually beautiful power.
The Arcade Fire aren't even a band anymore; they're a cult. A bunch of people who dress up and make creepy records and refuse to be in their videos. To be fair, it must be a nightmare trying to control them; when they're not throwing ladders at each other onstage, they're smashing Jonathan Ross' camera or leading the crowd out of the theatre after gigs and playing in the street. Bluntly put; they're a bunch of mad Canadians.
Made up of Win Butler and his wife, former jazz singer Régine Chassagne (yes, she has French heritage, how could you tell?) who lists the hurdy gurdy, the keyboards, the drums, and an accordion amongst her instruments of choice, the band have several other musicians making up the ranks such as Win's brother, William, a bass guitarist and percussionist, guitarist Richard Reed Parry, keyboardist Tim Kingsbury, violinist Sarah Neufeld and drummer Jeremy Gara. The band members routinely swap around their roles on a whim, making it difficult to accurately say who plays what when and why, but roughly that's what they all play. In 2005, their first album "Funeral" was released, and gained a very quiet following, which ramped up as reviews started to flood in. Pitchfork gave them 9.7 out of 10, Blender and The Guardian gave it a full five stars, and even Stylus awarded an 'A' rating. But mainstream success eluded the band, mainly because they tried to avoid it. They refused many television performances, keen to stay an underground scene for as long as possible. The decision meant that their brand of operatic art-rock gained a strong cult following. The tension that blew up as they prepared to release the follow-up to Funeral, called "Neon Bible", became intense.
In December 06, fans were given a phone number that could be called, and at the other end of the line they could hear a preview of the song "Intervention". At the start of 2007, the band released a video to the internet in which Parry told us, the new album would change the world of music forever and make it mean something again. The next month, the lyrics were made available to read, alongside several short poems. Pictures cropped up of the band wearing masks, surrounded by darkness. Clearly, something big was in the works here.
Come March '07, Neon Bible was finally released in the UK, and people could see for themselves what the hype had led up to. Immediately the reviews started to flood in. 'A' ratings, high ranks out of ten, five out of five marks, high percentage shots, they all collected together. Although the scores weren't as high as they were for Funeral, nobody seemed to have a bad word to say about Neon Bible. The Arcade Fire had triumphed! And as seen by their performances at Glastonbury and on TV, they were ready to start spreading the word around. All of this is very inspiring, but what do I make of the record?
On the record, there are two singers; Win and Régine. Whilst on Funeral they tended to sound a little screechy, here they're restrained themselves. Whilst Régine has started to stay in tune, Win has changed completely; his voice now sounds deep, as if channelling the spirit of Bruce Springsteen, and it suits the music. The band have always made dark music, and tracks like 'Intervention' feature two huge organs, played over the top of each other, to create a thundering gothic vision for the music. It's an awesomely anti-commercial statement of theatre which features melodramatic lines such as "working for the church while your family DIES!" It's dramatic stuff. Yet what makes the music so strong is the multi-instrumentation. You can hear a plinky glockenspiel in Intervention pinning the song together, and over the mighty organs are keyboards and guitars, quiet pieces of percussion, many different things coming together. Following Intervention are two songs which fit together, "Black Wave (Bad Vibrations)" and "Ocean of Noise". Black Wave is itself set in two pieces, with Régine singing the first half in her almost hysterical way, before Win bursts in with thudding drums and scary guitar growling, with the lowest tone of voice imaginable. The second half outdoes the first, but it's worth listening to the whole piece together to enjoy it as a whole. Ocean of Noise, on the other hand, follows straight on from the proclamations of doom to provide a calm moment. Pinned down by keyboards and guitars, the song is whispered by Win. It's not one of the better tracks, it's too restless for it's own good, but as a mood piece it's unbeatable.
The album begins in the biggest possible way, by tackling the issue of 9/11 in the opening "Black Mirror", the most gothic piece of orchestra put together this year. It's one of the best songs on the album, and forms the start of an opening three-song-set which is undeniably dazzling, but the lyrics are abysmal. You don't tend to notice so much at the start, but towards the end you realise that every song seems to be a variation on "I don't wanna ---, I don't wanna ---", it's just the band listing things they don't like about America. As far as lyrical satirising goes, it's a far cry from Springsteen, or even from today's competition, Bright Eyes. "(Antichrist Television Blues)" is a fiery, rousing example of this, a song where the music again outshadows the lyrical content. Win's voice becomes another piece of instrumentation, only sparking towards the end as he, in the guise of a hysterical evangelist, worries if he's become "an antichrist". The closing track, "My Body is a Cage", is a terrible song. Massive organs sounds loom over everything, the lyrics are poor, and the vocals are off-balance. The track thunders and crashes and smashes at the end, but it's not interesting enough to make you want to hear it.
However, the problems the album faces are not a huge deal, especially when the band can throw tracks like "Keep The Car Running" and "The Well and the Lighthouse" at you. The former is a song with chasing guitars, where you can hear every string being used on the bass and electric, and the violins soar above. It's fast, very fast, and the pace sweeps you away. The latter is another song that works better as a whole than as a single piece. The first part of the song has thudding keyboards and tingling percussion bits rattling across the back, whilst Win sings "heaven is only in my head", again hitting the theme of the album, which wants to attack Christian society in America. The first half of the song is like Keep the Car..., in that it races along as a breathtaking speed, but then slows down with distorted handclaps and jingles, and becomes an anthem. But when it comes to anthems on the album... nothing can beat "No Cars Go". A song they previously released three years ago, No Cars Go has been remodelled as a mini-opera. Guitars, violins, organs, piano, pounding drums, you've got everything thrown together here with some woodwind for good luck, and you have yourself a song that takes Snow Patrol and turns something like "Run" into art-rock. It's dark, moody, upbeat and joyous at the same time, and it's got bits where the whole band shout "hey!" at each other. Win and Régine sing together, and it's the best thing ever to sing at night when you're driving down a road lit up by orange streetlamps and you can watch tramps walking round, fighting each other for food. Was that image a little too specific?
Buoying down the mad dashes of No Cars Go and the other more anthemic songs are the two down-tempo tracks "Neon Bible" and "Windowsill". Of the two, I prefer Neon Bible, simply because it's so unexpected. There's barely anything in the song, it's a track where you can hear a pin drop, as Win whispers "It's the Neon Bible, the Neon Bible/Not Much Chance For Survival". It sounds downbeat, but it doesn't feel it. On the otherside, Windowsill is a weary lament, a moment of down-time where the band can rest themselves ahead of the massive musical moments that are to come.
The anthems steal this album away. Whilst you can justify the presence of every song on the record, simply because they add to the tone and sound of the thing together, it's got to be said that songs like Ocean of Noise fade into obscurity pretty quickly. Also, big shame that No Cars Go isn't the last song. It ends things on such a high note that you wonder why the band chose for the worst song, My Body Is A Cage, to end the record. In the end, though, it doesn't matter, because the band have evolved and started to grow bigger in terms of noise and power. All they really need to do is bulk up their song-writing, and... that's it. The band have everything they need at their feet; they make a miraculous discord, and they're well on their way to becoming the most important band of the new millennium.
The Arcade Fire are one of my favourite bands of all time, and this is their best album. They are an eclectic bunch from Canada, mostly they sing in English, but occasionally they sing in French, and they use just about every instrument available to them to make the noise they require.
Recorded in a church, this album is a whirlpool of different emotions, from the dark and moody 'Black Mirror' and 'Intervention' to the more radio friendly 'No Cars Go', 'Keep the Car Running' and 'My Body is a Cage'. Husband and Wife team Wim and Regine write beautiful, haunting music, yet manage to keep it accessible.
I would recommend this album to anyone that like bands such as Radiohead, British Sea Power, Blonde Redhead and Godspeed you Black Emperor. Also, make sure you listen to it with a good speaker system; there is so much going on in this album that a weak system just won't do it any justice.
I love this album and think that everybody should give it a listen, even if it's not usually your kind of thing. You might just surprise yourself!
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Black Mirror
2 Keep The Car Running
3 Neon Bible
5 Black Wave/Bad Vibrations
6 Ocean Of Noise
7 The Well And The Lighthouse
8 (Antichrist Television Blues)
10 No Cars Go
11 My Body Is A Cage