Arcade Fire could teach everyone the art of releasing a record. Having quietly and studiously worked away at a Montreal church recording Neon Bible, the completion of the album, together with the announcement of a small venue tour, was posted in a low key fashion on their official fan site, Us Kids Know. From there, the inevitable hype machine followed Ė coverage of their visceral live return aside, this was oddly restricted mainly to word-of-mouth mutterings (albeit via electronic methods) rather than the oft-hysterical predictive gestures of the mainstream press. As the bandwagon passed through London, Montreal and New York, so the intensity of the expectation grew, but none of this seems to have fazed the Canadian septet. Despite the baggage that comes with being the most hyped band on the planet, Arcade Fire have adhered to the golden rule Ė the introverted nature of their recording sessions has yielded a suite of 11 songs of depth and carnal intensity.
As a whole, Neon Bible is contradictory in its nature. Although the dark, angular artwork and the cryptic Hope/Desire-themed booklets handed out at the preview shows seems to suggest that we are being offered something akin to a concept album, what we actually have a set of songs without a distinct unifying theme. Yet, concurrently, Neon Bible only works as a whole; with its several sonic peaks and troughs, often in the course of one song, the crux of the album seems to shift with each and every listen. There is no single song that matches the visceral cries of any of "Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels)", "Neighbourhood #3 (Power Out)" or "Rebellion (Lies)", but Neon Bible remains consistent throughout, both in terms of the raw quality of the song writing and the strength that lies in the depth of variety at hand.
Whether or not Neon Bible is a better album than Funeral is rather irrelevant, as the impassioned nature of both releases will invoke different meanings in each listener. What is clear, however, is that the subject matter is markedly different from their debut - where Funeral largely relied on introversion, Neon Bible appears as its outward looking cousin. Themes of war appear on occasion, from the anti-Iraq rallying cry of Intervention to the less explicit "Black Mirror." Elsewhere, the album is rather more cryptic in its intentions; "(Antichrist Television Blues)", with its clever Dylanesque twist, implicitly alludes to criticisms of celebrity culture, whilst the stories told in songs such as "The Well And The Lighthouse" and "Windowsill" give away little to their overriding meaning.
Musically, Neon Bible is incredibly diverse, almost deceptively so. The opening sequence of "Black Mirror" and "Keep The Car Running" are supported by semiobscure, traditional instruments such as the hurdy-gurdy and mandolin. Elsewhere, the obligatory accordion appears on "No Cars Go", whilst pipe organs dominate the scene in both "Intervention" and the stunning outro of "My Body Is A Cage", whose earlier groove is dictated by the unlikely use of drum pads. This is just the tip of the iceberg: also to be found are a Hungarian choir, horns, a harp and inventive string arrangements. Amidst it all, this is backed by the core elements of clean-driving guitars, forceful drums and trademark unison vocals. Itís only once one sits back and analyses all this at hand that the full scale of Neon Bible can really be appreciated. In many lesser hands, such versatility would only muddy the water, but here it only showcases how subtly sensational the production is. The multitude of acoustic instruments are captured with a richness that serves to solidify the texture without detracting from the backbone of the songs, all the while providing a variety of timbres and tones throughout.
Neon Bible isnít an album without fault, and many will point to omission of obvious anthems and lack of personal lyrics as a weakness. Others will point out that the subtle nature of its dynamics are individually less effective than the more modular structures to be found on Funeral. Of course, these are valid observations, but they fail to consider the overall context of Neon Bible. Whether intentional or otherwise, the eventual outcome is as close to a symphonic work that a modern rock band could hope for.
What may prolong the shelf-life of Neon Bible is its density and variety of both musical and thematic features. Where Funeral was very much a slow grower, Neon Bible hits like a train wreck on first listen and familiarity only serves to multiply this force on each subsequent playing. But amongst all this, Arcade Fire have done exactly what they set out to do and created 11 very good songs. By branching from this simple and effective base, Neon Bible has turned out to be all this and perhaps just a little bit more.
By Karl Butler.
April 2, 2007