CD Review of Neon Bible by Arcade Fire

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Neon Bible
starstarstarstarhalf star Label: Merge
Released: 2007
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The Canadian-born Arcade Fire burst onto the scene in 2004 with Funeral, the band’s universally acclaimed debut, which drew raves from such luminaries as Coldplay’s Chris Martin, who called Arcade Fire “the greatest band in history” during a concert north of the border. Martin was no doubt pandering to his audience that night, but Arcade Fire’s importance shouldn’t be discounted. The record, which was inspired by a series of deaths of several of the band members’ relatives, ended up on loads of year-end “Best of” lists, setting up high expectations for the group’s sophomore effort.

So, not quite three years later, here comes Neon Bible. Was it worth the wait? Absolutely. On Funeral, it seemed as if the band was intentionally trying to make things difficult for the listener by putting all those “Neighborhood” songs up front. Looking back (as a convert), those tracks are quite solid in their own right, but they lose their context without the rest of the record.Simply stated, it’s just ridiculous that Funeral’s best song, “Rebellion (Lies)” is buried in the album’s ninth spot.

Neon Bible doesn’t repeat that mistake. That’s not to say that the album is frontloaded, it’s just that the opening songs aren’t nearly as dense as the first few on Funeral. Three of the first four tracks have already been released as singles – “Black Mirror” and “Intervention” in the US and “Keep the Car Running” in the UK – and they are appropriately approachable. (If you’re wondering, the other song – the album’s title track – might be the worst song on the album.)

Arcade Fire’s music is about two things: sullen, intricate melodies, and frontman Win Butler’s vocals. The latter are representative of a growing trend in modern rock: first prize doesn’t always go to the guy with the best pipes. Vocals aren’t all about style; substance is just as important. Butler is a member of a new generation of singers – Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse, James Mercer of the Shins, Hamilton Leithauser of the Walkmen and Craig Finn of the Hold Steady, just to name a few – who get by on catharsis rather than traditional vocal talent. It’s not about which notes Butler hits, it’s about the way he misses them.

Take “Antichrist Television Blues,” the closest thing to a ditty that the band has ever put to tape. It’s about a showbiz dad who prods his talented young daughter into singing competitions so that he may reap the benefits. Is Butler taking a shot at “American Idol”? Certainly he must know that if he'd auditioned for the show, there’s not a chance in hell that Simon Cowell and the gang would have sent him to Hollywood. But here he is, making music that has more meaning than all the “Idol”-winners combined.

Butler’s wife, multi-instrumentalist Regine Chassagne, lends her pixie-ish vocals to “Black Waves,” which represents Neon Bible’s “In the Back Seat.” The band members often switch instruments from song to song, so it’s tough to give credit individually as most of the music is very much a team effort, but Jeremy Gara’s gorgeous drumming on “No Cars Go” does stand out. The track itself is more than three years old, first appearing on the band’s self-titled EP in 2003. But the group wanted to beef the song up by adding an orchestra, and succeeded magnificently. It would have served as a glorious ending to the album, but instead the group chose the stark “My Body is a Cage,” deciding to end Neon Bible on a somber note. In many ways, the album is much more outwardly engaging when compared to Funeral, but this track just oozes personal angst. Even so, it’s a minor misstep. Neon Bible is a beautiful piece of work.

~John Paulsen