The Arcade Fire’s 2004 debut LP, Funeral, while brilliant, is the type of album that is nearly impossible for a band to make twice. Fueled by the deaths of front-couple Win Butler and Regine Chassagne’s grandparents, the record is a beautiful catharsis, filled with both sorrow and wonder in the face of mortality.
Waiting for World War III
The Arcade Fire’s 2004 debut LP, Funeral, while brilliant, is the type of album that is nearly impossible for a band to make twice. Fueled by the deaths of front-couple Win Butler and Regine Chassagne’s grandparents, the record is a beautiful catharsis, filled with both sorrow and wonder in the face of mortality. It’s an album full of immediacy and desperation, like they had to make it to make sense of the loss they were confronting. But it’s also a portrait of an emotional state that’s fleeting. The thing about letting go is eventually you have to, well, let go.
Lucky for us, Neon Bible, the band’s second full-length album is an entirely different kind of record from Funeral. Most notably in subject matter–Butler’s lyrics make a distinct shift to the political. It’s a bit like waking up after a long sleep, stepping outside and taking a look around, only to discover that everything has gone to shit.
In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a war going on, and it seems to be getting worse. The Bush administration’s account of events seems to be what could politely be described as a further departure from the truth every day. Internationally, we seem caught in an ever-escalating game of brinkmanship with potentially catastrophic consequences. Collapse is inevitable, Neon Bible seems to say, and Butler and company are bracing for the worst: “World War III, when are you coming for me?” Butler asks on “Windowsill” with ironic cheeriness.
But Neon Bible isn’t a protest album, exactly. Like Funeral, Neon Bible captures a state of being. But gone is Funeral’s sense of desperation. This time it’s one filled with fear and frustration, a contemplation of one’s place in a world that seems to be rapidly hurtling toward disaster, the point when the sense of helplessness teeters on becoming hopelessness, when anger turns to bitter resignation.
At times Butler lashes out overtly, with such direct barbs as “Don’t wanna fight in a holy war / Don’t want the salesman knocking at my door / I don’t wanna live in America no more.” But Neon Bible isn’t so much about assigning blame as it is about questioning one’s own complicity in how we got here.
“Shot by a security camera / You can see your own image / You can also look yourself in the eye,” sings Butler in his David Bowie-like warble on the album’s opening track, “Black Mirror.” It’s an acknowledgment that we live in Orwellian times, but it also seems to ask, when is the last time you did anything about it?
Neon Bible lacks the type of anthemic rockers quite like Funeral’s “Wake Up,” and veers distinctly toward a quieter, slow tone. But the slower tracks serve to build anticipation, building to climaxes where the band literally pulls out all the stops (on the pipe organ–really).
Throughout the record the band takes the full, orchestral sound they have become known for to new heights, from the full string section on “Keep The Car Running” to the booming pipe organ (an instrument that should be put to more use in rock music) on “Intervention” and the album’s final, climactic track, “My Body is a Cage.” They continue to tie together an incredibly broad range of rock influences into a huge wall of sound that sounds both chaotic and carefully wrought at the same time.
But Neon Bible really succeeds because it is a snapshot of what it feels like to live in these crazy, uncertain times. The Arcade Fire has found a way to put into words the confusing set of emotions that rise out of trying to make sense of the war and the current political landscape, but they’ve also figured out how to look themselves in the eye and laugh at it all.