Neon Bible – The Arcade Fire
Remember The Strokes? Yeah, I liked their first two albums, too. A friend burned me a copy of their last one. I’ve listened to it a couple times. Not bad. Looking back, The Strokes weren’t exactly pushing the boundaries of popular music, but they do deserve at least some of the credit they’ve gotten for “saving rock and roll.” After all the Alice in Chains tailcoat riders like Godsmack and Limp Bizkit plastered the face of rock with red and white makeup and a red foam nose, The Strokes and their contemporaries at least reminded us what we were really all here for: to be cool.
What The Strokes have to do with the Arcade Fire is this: Both bands came along at a time when their sounds ran against the grain of the status quo, and both received exorbitant amounts of praise for resurrecting and/or changing rock and roll. While The Strokes looked like the kind of guys who would run away from a fight with Godsmack then laugh about it after they’d caught their smoky collective breath at the hippest bar on the Lower East Side, the Arcade Fire seem the types to create a human circle around the brawl and protest its abhorrent violence. At their respective times in history, their approaches resonated with a number of listeners, earning them critical acclaim, legions of fans, and whatever money was left after all the gears in their hype machines had taken their share of the loot. Unfortunately for the Strokes, the hype died soon after the release of their second album, Room on Fire, their fans moved on, and the band that saved rock and roll was left to watch as its rescued heroine ran off with Jack White.
The title of the Arcade Fire’s new record is Neon Bible, and much like the Strokes’ sophomore effort, it’s a dress cut from the same cloth as its predecessor. Unfortunately for the Arcade Fire, that fabric has lost a bit of its sparkle in the intervening months. While Funeral had the DIY punkishness of a boombox garage demo to go along with its chamber pop art school snobbery, Neon Bible moves the group out of the basement and into the penthouse, and Win Butler, Rne Chassagne and company sound a little too well-fed for rock and roll.
While its subject matterrebellion, revolution, religion, and regretis the ideal fuel for a chamber-pop-punk opus, all the grand ideas and epic themes of Neon Bible get buried beneath a sonic mountain of apathy and ambivalence, and the fire at the heart of this volcano seems to have died out somewhere between anticipation and actuality. Funeral at least dug tunnels to an imaginary world, but Neon Bible has resigned itself to hiding out on the “Windowsill” above the awful reality and pretending like everything’s peachy.
Except for “The Well and the Lighthouse,” in which our hero dives straight into the blackness at the bottom of the well, Butler keeps his voice just below a Prozac scream, and though “Keep the Car Running” and “(Antichrist Television Blues)”easily the album’s two most danceable tracks (picture Molly Ringwald in Sixteen Candles with torn jeans and a tattoo instead of a pink dress and frilly socks)release Butler’s inner Springsteen, all the anger and frustration expressed in the lyrics are conspicuously absent from the music on the rest of the record.
Sonically dense and full of different textures and instrumentation, Neon Bible nonetheless relies mostly on a few monotone indie adaptations of twelve-bar blues structures, but without the creaky rocking chair and rusty, rattling strings. Butler’s shaky vocals boast a stage-fright sincerity that lends credence to his words, and Chassagne’s backing vocals and string arrangements add to the projects grandiosity, but all the smoke and mirrors do little to hide the fact that either the Arcade Fire’s collective head has gotten too big or its heart has gotten too small.
Yet all the repetitiveness that makes Neon Bible a bit numbing over time also makes it downright hypnotic the first few go-rounds. The cadences of the title track and the first single, “Black Mirror,” stick to the roof of your brain, making it impossible to complainat least until they lose their flavor and dissolve into the sour stink of boredomand though it’s not the record many had hoped for, it’s not a torturous listen, even after the same old rhythmic and melodic structures have become a permanent ringing in your ears. Though predictability won’t exactly change the world, and it certainly won’t save rock and roll, it will sell records; but the Arcade Fire are dead-on about one thing: there’s “not much chance for survival / if the Neon Bible / is right.”