Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Say your prayers, everybody

The Arcade Fire
Neon Bible
Score: 10

Someone owes Bruce Springsteen a drink. Make that seven drinks: one each from Win Butler, Régine Chassagne, Tim Kingsbury, Richard Reed Parry, Will Butler, Sarah Neufeld and Jeremy Gara, collectively The Arcade Fire. And while they're at it, they should send a round over to Radiohead. Because without the Boss and the British lords of alienation, Neon Bible would not exist.

On their second album, The Arcade Fire take Springsteen's popular appeals and run them through the Big Rock Megaphone. Post-rock guitars swell. Orchestras crescendo. Choirs take you higher. Win Butler belts out lyrics with the earnestness of an evangelist. Church organs peal, trying to deliver you from evil. Or Fergie. (Close enough.)

Undergirding it all is a rhythm section with roadhouse gumption. "Keep the Car Running" kicks off a blue-collar jig, and Butler co-opts Springsteen's larger-than-life delivery. Handclaps reinforce the proletariat theme and come arena-ready.

Springsteen's influence is unmistakable on "(Antichrist Television Blues)," the album's centerpiece. It follows a man who dreads his paper-pushing job and begins to unravel. On the verge of cracking, he splits town, pinning his hopes on his 13-year-old daughter, whom he believes to be a preternaturally talented singer. Before long, however, his lust for the big time overshadows his concern for his daughter's well-being, and he starts pressuring her:

"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!"

Thus, The Arcade Fire change him from a sympathetic character to a complicated, flawed character, making him seem more real.

Stories turn up in other songs, too. In a spin on the "lead me not into temp-
tation" scripture, a siren in "The Well and the Lighthouse" persuades a prisoner to plunge into "water black" and scolds him for it: "You always fall / for what you desire." Then the tune veers into Echo & the Bunnymen's quirky-loner territory with an update on the prisoner, now resurrected as a lighthouse attendant. Yet he's no better off than when he was in the cell because "if you leave / them ships are gonna wreck."

The Not-So-Good Book --- the Neon Bible, as it were --- gives Butler plenty of reason for his distressed vocals. A pall of fear hangs over the album, and numerous tracks make reference to the apocalypse, which would seem to be right around the corner. "Not much chance for survival / if the Neon Bible is right," Butler sings on the hushed title track. On "Windowsill," he cries, "So what'll it be? / A house on fire, or a rising sea?"

His anxiety springs from present-day concerns: war, global warming, the erosion of civil liberties, the proliferation of security cameras in the band's native Canada. That grounds Neon Bible in modern times, whereas Radiohead's OK Computer still sounds futuristic 10 years after its release.

The Arcade Fire's ambitious and creative leap from Funeral to Neon Bible remains a tier below the one Radiohead took after The Bends (and after OK Computer, for that matter), but it deserves the comparison. Both are anthemic, complex rock 'n' roll epics about angst-ridden young characters. Both are highly melodic and symphonic. Neon Bible concerns a post-MTV, pre-World War III society, while OK Computer concerns a distant technological and dystopian age. A bible versus a computer. "Paranoid Android" versus just plain paranoid.

The machines have not revolted, but The Arcade Fire preach about the end of the world with more fervor than The Rapture Index on the Web. "Black Mirror," which opens the album with an ominous rumbling, includes the lyrics "Mirror, mirror on the wall / Show me where them bombs will fall."

Would Plutonium Bible have been too much of a giveway?

1 comment:

June said...

o hai!

some friends and I started a music blog as well, if you'd like to link to us (we've linked to you).

and by the way, total wholehearted agreement on Neon Bible.