Thursday, December 6, 2007

Best of 2007 Album Review: Arcade Fire -- Neon Bible

The fifth and final review in a series covering my favorite records of 2007. At the big number ONE on the list:

In my neighborhood down the road a bit there's a church tucked back away from the street behind a row of trees. Driving by during the day, you could easily miss it. But not at night. Every evening, around 5 or 6 PM, they light up the cross on their sign. It's brighter than any illumination at Taco Bell or Pizza Hut, a gaudy, eerie, glow-in-the-dark blaze that always reminds me of that line from the Bob Dylan song "It's Alright Ma, I'm Only Bleeding."

Lately it's brought to mind the Neon Bible.

Arcade Fire's second album after their amazing debut on Funeral, Neon Bible is no sophomore slump effort. Suffused with apocalyptic dread and driving, pounding rhythms, it's the best album of 2007.

The omens get under way right off the bat, as "Black Mirror" commences with the rumbling of distant thunder, like ancestral voices prophesying war. Two of the album's primary lyrical images enter right from the first track: the rising ocean tide and the mirror that will no longer reflect.

From there, the dread continues to build. In "Keep the Car Running," singer Win Butler howls in the refrain that, "It's coming!" Meanwhile, in an act of foolhardy but glorious defiance, he advises that somehow, jumping into the car and taking off might just enable him to escape the oncoming nightmare. Bruce Springsteen would have tried the same thing.

Any hope however is quickly dashed in the title track. "Not much chance of survival if the Neon Bible is right."

From there, the band looks out over the cultural landscape and sees plenty of blame to go around. They condemn the Church ("Intervention"), the consumer culture ("Windowsill"), the State (throughout), and ultimately, themselves for the very impulse of trying to run away from it all.

As the centerpiece of the album "(Antichrist Television Blues)" is a roller-coaster run through nightmare images that begins with explicit references to 9/11 ("Don't wanna work in a building downtown ... Don't wanna see when the planes hit the ground:), shifts to the fears of "a good Christian man" that his 13-year-old daughter's stage performance is profane, then regresses that man back to when he was praying to God for a child "'cause I wanna put it up on the TV screen." There are echoes of the JonBenet Ramsey case in the man's desires for his child ("I need you to get up for me, up on that stage and show the men that you're old for your age"). And finally, the good Christian man wonders if he's, in fact, the Antichrist.

Isn't that exactly what God has done with His child? Put him up on the stage or on the TV screen, for all to see? Arcade Fire finds such an act profane and finds echoes of it in the post-MTV celebrity obsessed culture.

Finally, in the last song on the album, "My Body Is a Cage," the band rues the separation of spirit caused by the individuality of bodies. Again, performing on a stage is used as an image of removing oneself from oneself and from others. And again, they are willing to point the accusing finger at themselves as much as at anyone else.

It's so easy and so common these days to fire barbs at this or that political figure or policy. What elevates Neon Bible is the way the band refuses to let themselves (or by extension, the rest of us) off the hook. After all, they are performers, and on this album there is no more sacrilegious act than standing up on a stage and telling the world, "Look at me!"

The scariest thing about the Black Mirror is that when you look into it, it might just be reflecting everything there is to reflect.

Well, I've managed to make this album sound like No Fun at all. That's my failure, not Arcade Fire's. Because all this nightmarish Sturm Und Drang is set to marvelous soaring anthemic rock and roll that is at turns disarmingly complex and elegantly simple.

The rising ocean recurs throughout the lyrics and it's also the primary sonic focal point. Throughout the album, rudimentary chord chugs and ping-pong rhythms ebb and flow, washing over the listener like the breaking tide. The patterns can be boneheadedly simple, but from the first they are elevated by the raw intensity of the playing. Arcade Fire stands as an indictment of so much of the lazy, flaccid music that clogs up the airwaves. They put everything they've got into these songs. Live, they are a wonder to behold, running up and down the stage, pounding on stray drums scattered about, yowling in a religious ecstasy while yards away from any microphone.

And the fact that they are able to put that intensity across on a studio album is one more testament (as if another was needed) to their artistry.

Best album of the year. Can't wait for the next one.

Click here to see Arcade Fire live doing "(Antichrist Television Blues)."

And click here for a great little rarity: Number Three on my list, The Foo Fighters, covering Arcade Fire's "Keep the Car Running."

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