Welcome to Anniversary Records, a column where we reflect on records that meant the world to us way back when, and what they mean to us now. This week: Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible.
Anniversary Records: Arcade Fire – ‘Neon Bible’
by Chad Jewett
Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible wasn’t just a prototypical “difficult follow-up”; it was also an archetypal “darker sequel.” Like Radiohead’s Kid A or Nirvana’s In Utero, it eschewed the winning, big-tent pop of the LP that preceded it (2004’s Funeral) in favor of something more willfully opaque and thorny. But more than that, Neon Bible, released 10 years ago this week, reversed the plucky optimism of its predecessor in favor of something more spectral, seething and ominous. Neon Bible ended up being an indie-rock Empire Strikes Back, The Dark Knight to Funeral’s Batman Begins. Funeral imagined a life after death, parading buoyantly past the graveyard. Neon Bible had the moody, witching-hour quality of a bad dream. Songs veer queasily between major and minor keys; characters flirt with damnation; even a pop song as perfect as “Keep The Car Running” seems to be optimistic despite itself. The album netted comparisons to golden-era Bruce Springsteen, not just for the more streamlined rock and roll of a lot of its music, but also because of the beleaguered desperation of the stories the album told.
Many of the songs on Neon Bible seem to surface slowly from the depths of some dark, cavernous sea – an image underlined by the sheer amount of eerie oceanic imagery offered by singer Win Butler. The tense, taught “The Well And The Lighthouse” finds its character pulled into the depths, as the song gradually slows to a woozy waltz. Album opener “Black Mirror” gradually rumbles into focus atop a clanging piano and the booming echo of timpani drums that quake in reply to lines like “I will walk down to the ocean after waking from a nightmare / No moon, no pale reflection.” The song mainly sticks to its murky, insistent thrum, changing direction only for a brief bridge that sees Butler intoning “Un, deux, trois, dit miroir noir” over the band’s tight, nervy jabs. Neon Bible was the first Arcade Fire album to see violinist Sarah Neufeld join the band’s ranks as a full time member, and her sharp, percussive playing is essential to the record’s tempestuous sound as well as to its desolate theatrics. In “Black Mirror” her quick bowing is an exclamation point as the song’s string section rises and falls in eerie chromatic discord; on poignant album centerpiece “Ocean of Noise” her violin eventually arrives in the song’s finale as a sweeping, beautiful counterpoint to the song’s otherwise gloomy hush.
It’s also the string section of Neufeld and guest Owen Pallet that buzzes to life at the beginning of album highlight “Keep The Car Running”, one of Arcade Fire’s finest songs and a hopeful standout on an album that begins and ends ominously. Where the pounded piano of “Black Mirror” is foreboding, on “Keep The Car Running” the same staccato keys are effervescent, haloed by a springy bassline and the bright chime of mandolin and Régine Chassagne’s humming hurdy-gurdy. The song comes the closest to echoing the ad-hoc marching band quality of Funeral, but here Butler’s lyrics betray a weather-beaten saltiness that complicates all of that major-key joy: “There’s a weight that’s pressing down / Late at night you can hear the sound / Even the noise you make when you sleep / Can’t swim across a river so deep.” More water, more pressure, more fear: “They know my name cause I told it to them / But they don’t know where and they don’t know when it’s coming.”
Informed by the fearsome spectacle of George W. Bush’s second term, a whole lot of Neon Bible echoes with dark, paranoid thoughts. “Keep The Car Running” doesn’t just sound a bit like a more rustic version of Reagan-era Springsteen hits like “Dancing In The Dark” – it also doubles down on those songs’ ability to tackle deep, historic uncertainty with a stiff upper lip, or otherwise go out in a blaze of glory. In the world of Neon Bible, the TV is always on and the news is always bad. Performed on Saturday Night Live in the winter of 2007, “Keep The Car Running” took on a revelatory quality, a joyous anthem of resistance and survival, even as Arcade Fire played it like they had lit themselves on fire. Ironically, the album resonated most in the very same late-night television glow that haunts its margins.
But the ringing effusiveness of “Keep The Car Running” leaves a ghostly echo as the album recedes quickly into the midnight hush of “Neon Bible”, the LP’s quietest, and perhaps most unsettling song. Whispering in a sing-song melody over a spare ensemble of acoustic guitar, kick drum and cello, Butler offers another apocalyptic vision: “It’s in the Neon Bible, the Neon Bible / Not much chance for survival / If the Neon Bible is right”, and later, “Oh God, well look at you now / Oh, you lost it, but you don’t know how / In the light of a golden calf / Oh God I had to laugh.” A whole lot of Neon Bible is given over to that kind of warped religious imagery, a theme Butler claimed grew from watching the hypnotically vulgar spectacle of televangelists and late-night religious televisions spots full of snake-oil salesmen posing as holy seers in the grotesque tradition of Flannery O’Connor.
“Been working for the church while your life falls apart / Singing hallelujah with the fear in your heart / Every spark of friendship and love will die without a home / Hear the soldier groan, ‘We’re going it alone’”. So goes the final chorus of the grand, soaring “Intervention”, a dispatch of post-9/11 anxiety that happens to sound like a Phil Spector soul song, a swinging ballad punctuated by Will Butler’s glockenspiel and Richard Reed Perry’s high, lonesome lead guitar. As massive as the track is – and indeed, it’s likely Arcade Fire’s most majestic recording — it still grooves, thanks largely to drummer Jeremy Gara’s insistent beat. The song hums around the powerhouse engine of an antique church organ housed in the Montreal church that the band rented to record their second LP. Played by Régine Chassagne, the organ’s tone, rich and full and glowing, stands as the most singularly gorgeous feature of the album, an unapologetically transcendent sound embedded in a song full of looming shadows.
It’s that nightmarish vision that powers “(Antichrist Television Blues)”, the thumping country-punk tour de force that highlights Neon Bible’s second half. According to legend, the song was nearly titled “The Joe Simpson Blues”, a reference to the unscrupulous, hypocritical father of one-time pop star Jessica Simpson. The song tells the story of a cynical father who exploits his gifted daughter by selling her singing talents as the work of the lord. “Oh God, would you send me a child? / Because I wanna put it up on the TV screen / So the world can see what your true word means” Butler sings, with a venom that slowly grows as the song moves from his character’s hardscrabble early days (“I don’t wanna work in a building downtown / Parking their cars in the underground / Their voices when they scream, they make no sound”) to a twist ending that treats the father’s hypocrisy as a horror movie reveal: “Do you know where I was at your age? Any idea where I was at your age? / I was working downtown for the minimum wage / And I’m not gonna let you just throw it all away / I’m through being cute, I’m through being nice / Oh tell me, Lord, am I the Antichrist?!”. The strings shriek discordantly in response.
Set to a scrappy 12-bar arrangement that unfolds like a modernized take on the wooly blues epics that Bob Dylan offered on Bringing It All Back Home, “(Antichrist Television Blues)” is one of Arcade Fire’s very best political statements. Not content with simply calling out the shallow double-speak of pseudo-religious hucksters like Joe Simpson (lines like “Into the black of a starless sky / I’m staring into nothing and I’m asking you why” emphasize the play-acting at the heart of this kind of fanaticism), Butler subtly outlines the bigotry bobbing just beneath the surface of right-wing evangelism. When Butler sings “I wanna see the cities rust / And the trouble makers riding on the back of the bus” the singer is targeting the thinly-veiled racism and intolerance of evangelical politicians like Rick Santorum, who was in the early days of a presidential campaign when work on Neon Bible was underway. Around that central message swirl images of contemporary fears (“The planes keep crashing, always two by two”) and bitter cynicism (“Dear God, I’m a good Christian man / In your glory, I know you understand / That you gotta work hard and you gotta get paid”) that define the album as a whole, making “(Antichrist Television Blues)” the ferocious, biting heart of Neon Bible.
“Ocean of Noise” trades in a different kind of haunted religiosity. “In an ocean of noise / I first heard your voice / Now who here among us / Still believes in choice? Not I” sings Butler over the song’s chilly post-punk groove. The song recalls Nick Cave, both in the Butler’s vampish, gloomy delivery and in the slowly-gathering drama of the band’s performance, all chiming pianos and eerie echoes. The same goes for “My Body Is A Cage”, the album’s arresting final statement. “My body is a cage that keeps me from dancing with the one I love / But my mind holds the key.” The song sits at a low simmer for its first two minutes, and Win Butler’s quiet, desperate performance is among his best, his falsetto pained and frail, a blunt contrast to the pugilistic bark of “Keep The Car Running” and “Black Mirror”. Much of Neon Bible is defined by patience – songs gradually build from early hushes into mad crescendos. Funeral offered similar climaxes, but Neon Bible delivers these moments as the final break of some kind of deranged fever. They offer sharper tension, rather than cheery relief. “Just because you’ve forgotten doesn’t mean you’re forgiven” sings Butler, an ominous warning set above the angry Old Testament rumble of martial drums and church organ that rings with the baroque horror of Phantom of the Opera.
The song – and album – ends with a refrain of “Set my spirit free / Set my body free”, one last expression of the schism between the sublime and the profane that powers Neon Bible’s midnight-hour vision. It’s a record troubled by the split between humanity’s highest faith and its worst instincts, reserving its deepest horror for the moments where the latter poses as the former. Neon Bible is complex enough to venomously call out bible-thumping charlatans and admit its fear of an unknowable, and perhaps nonexistent, God. Arcade Fire would tackle a different subject with the same nuance a few years later with The Suburbs, which poeticized America’s cul-de-sacs and malls with equal parts derision and nostalgia. But the sheer overwhelming drama of Neon Bible, an operatic ode to the dread of a modern era, remains an accomplishment unto itself.