Preamble 1: given the money, and given the choices to purchase either Funeral or Neon Bible, I’d go with the latter. This is not because I think Neon Bible is better musically speaking – I’d say the two are equal – but rather because the packaging of Neon Bible far surpasses that of Funeral. I guess I just prefer my albums to come in jewel cases and I prefer my jewel cases to come with liner notes that fit well in said jewel cases and I prefer the lyrics printed in said liner notes to be creatively written – they’re printed in bible font. The artwork therein is also gorgeous – see the covers of Neon Bible’s singles for more details (not including “Keep the Car Running” whose cover was thankfully not featured). And given the money, that’s exactly what I did.
Preamble 2: I’ve actually deliberately avoided reviewing Neon Bible for the longest time – it was one of the classic cases of having typed out a huge review for it and closing the window accidentally and having it forever lost in digital space. I’ve given it another attempt since, but like certain drugs, the first time was the best time. Lately, however, I’ve felt compelled to. It’s partly to do with the fact that I’m sad to see so many people throw this one under the bus while they’re criticizing the recent Reflektor (“The weakest since Neon Bible” would be true if The Suburbs didn’t exist). But it’s mostly to do with the fact that winter is coming (ha! Game of Thrones reference!) and Neon Bible is the band’s winter-est album; Funeral, despite being inspired by the deaths of the band’s relatives and despite evocation of snow (“Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)”) and darkness (“Une année sans lumiere), was at heart, a celebration of life – a summer album if there ever was one. The Suburbs screams fall to me, and Reflektor is one of the very few people who can’t tell if it’s winter or summer outside. That might seem like a cool superpower, but those people usually die really early.
I’ve unintentionally revealed my thesis statement in both those preambling paragraphs, but I’ll declare it more boldly here: this is just as good as Funeral, and more important than silly comparisons is the realization that both albums are completely different. On the importance of Pitchfork (don’t stop reading quite yet!), people have noted that they’re responsible for making certain indie acts household names – Arcade Fire included. Actually, I’d also say that of all the bands that Pitchfork have backed (by overrating) since their beginnings (a list including Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear and M83), Arcade Fire are easily the ones that have managed to garner the most favor from both the indiesphere and mainstream, eventually culminating in their surprise Grammy win. I’d also say that of all the bands that Pitchfork have backed (by overrating) since their beginnings, Arcade Fire are easily the ones that have actually deserved it with Funeral. Neon Bible plays like the logical follow-up to the critical success of Funeral – they’re playing in the big leagues now, and everything shows.
Most obviously, they’ve abandoned the homey themes of Funeral in favor of taking on the problems of the entire world. I’ve mentioned in other places that many albums released in 2002 (quick examples include Turn On the Bright Lights, Murray Street, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Heathen) were elevated by critics for their “seeming” 9/11-inspired music. Frankly, the most 9/11-inspired album there ever was was by a Canadian band released more than five years after the fact. Sample lyrics: “Mirror, mirror on the wall / Show me where them bombs will fall” (“Black Mirror”), “Working for the church while your family dies” and “Hear the soldier groan all quiet and alone” (“Intervention”), “If you leave, the ships are going to wreck” (“Lighthouse”), “I don’t want to live in America no more” and “World War III / When are you coming for me?” (“Windowsill”). Elsewhere, a song about Joe Simpson (the father of Ashlee Simpson) begins with the remarkably resonating “I don’t wanna work in a building downtown / I don’t know what I’m gonna do / Because the planes keep crashing two by two … No, I don’t wanna see it when the planes hit the ground.” Even the songs that are less obvious feature themes about escapism. Listen, for example, to the choruses of “Keep the Car Running” or how the chug of the instruments begin on Regine’s “Run … from the memory!” on “Black Wave / Bad Vibrations.” The best example, however, is the rallying cries in “No Cars Go,” resurrected in finer form from their debut EP. In it, the band yells “LITTLE BABIES! LET’S GO! / WOMEN AND CHILDREN! LET’S GO! / OLD FOLKS! LET’S GO!” in a stanza that ends with a quieted “Don’t know where we’re going.” That last line might sound scary, but in the context of the song, it’s not a bad thing. It’s looking forward to the unknown.
[On that point, if I’m allowed to go off on a quick tangent: Pitchfork’s Stephen M. Deusner writes that, “Venturing into the lyrical realm of Trent Reznor, album closer “My Body Is a Cage” seems too eager to wallow in the sort of pained melodrama that fuels the band’s detractors. The real disappointment is that Neon Bible doesn’t end with “No Cars Go”, which easily achieves the release they artfully promise but playfully deny throughout the record’s first nine tracks.” I do agree with him, “No Cars Go” would’ve been an exciting conclusion that hoists us over its shoulders and walks straight into the spring’s sunlight, away from the general shittiness of winter. “My Body is a Cage” does a 180 and just plops us right back where we started, a closer that fits the indie rock stereotype that just wants to wallow in its own self-pity. Unfortunately, I love the song and would be sad to see it scratched from the album. I’m also understanding to Arcade Fire’s dilemma here; “My Body is a Cage” doesn’t really fit anywhere else in the album except as the closer. Again, in Deusner’s words, “Everything [after “Black Mirror”] flows seamlessly from that song’s low rumble and startling imagery– until the final track.” Still though, Win Butler manages to channel actual pain in his voice (even if the lyrics are a little ham-fisted). Then there’s the obvious explosion at the 2:09 mark that cuts his mantra off. It’s a delicious moment in their discography that so often relies on controlled crescendos and the one-at-a-time entrance of multiple instruments. I’m also going to point out that this was the only cover that worked on Peter Gabriel’s Scratch My Back – make of that what you will.]
Moving on, the production on Neon Bible is a huge step up from Funeral that it actually boggles my mind that it’s still self-produced. I’m not suggesting that the production on Funeral was at all bad – it just wasn’t on the list of that album’s many qualities. It still worked because of its arena-cast of extra instrumentalists. Neon Bible still has that going for it and the sound is denser than dying stars on viagra. Because of that, where Funeral was immediate, Neon Bible is a grower – the only one in the band’s discography, I’d argue. There are always tiny details that you might have missed the first time: for example, everyone talks about the organ riff that fills the room as soon as it starts playing on “Intervention,” but listen to that throbbing bass! (Especially at the crescendo at the 2:00 mark!) I’m sure that instrument was everywhere on Funeral, but I don’t remember ever hearing it. Elsewhere, I had originally written off “Keep the Car Running” (blasphemous, I know) as a song that existed for its hook (a very good one) and nothing else. I’m a deaf idiot sometimes – listen to that twinkling one-note riff from the strings (?) that rise and fall after each line in the verse. And yes, as the album’s detractors note, despite the fact that the album tries to take on the world, a lot of the message gets lost when they’re being shoved into silly rhyming couplets. But frankly, any time that happens, the music – in the spirit of the most spirited Velvet Underground songs – is set to such a wonderful pace that it’s hard to notice – listen to “The Well and the Lighthouse” or “Windowsill” for more details. I mean, do you care more that Win Butler says “them bombs” on “Black Mirror” or are you too busy yelling “BLACK MIRROR!” like he and Regine command you to in one of the best uses of their bilingual lyrics (“UN DEUX TROIS / DIT ‘MIROIR NOIR!'”)?
Neon Bible also shows two strengths that the band didn’t reveal on Funeral. Firstly, it seems they are capable of writing soft songs. On Funeral, “Une année sans lumiere” and “Crown of Love” both began as ballads and then switched into a dance-off as if the band was afraid ballads are boring. “The Well and the Lighthouse” has the exact opposite structure – slowly coming to a halt instead of waiting for an airbag to stop it. Elsewhere, while the title track might not be anything too special in the grand scheme of things, it provides a nice relief from Win Butler’s usual Bono impression – two minutes of whispered vocals that suggest darkness if the lyrics didn’t already. A better example is “Ocean of Noise” – hardly the White Light/White Heat thing the title suggests. An interview after the album’s release, Win Butler has said that “You’re never less in control of your own life than when you’re in the ocean underneath a big wave and there is fog all around you. You can just see that you’re a passenger in a weird sense. Things are out of your control. It was just that kind of feeling that I wanted to express.”
He The band succeeds here. The vocals are crystal clear, but the instruments sound like they were recorded in the next room. The plinking guitar is reminiscent of rain, and the heavy plunks of bass – thunder. Jeremy Gara’s drums click and clack instead of their usual thud. It’s atmospheric, an adjective reserved for only one other song in their discography (“In the Backseat”), and even when the band finally give us the crescendo that they’ve been teasing at for 3 minutes, it’s signifies something. Win Butler’s cries of “I’M GONNA WORK IT OUT / CAUSE TIME WON’T WORK IT OUT” rising above the ocean’s sounds, trying to find his you or trying to find his way home. Meanwhile, the strings that were present the entire time finally materialize into an optimistic chime to help him get there.
Whereas Funeral channeled Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie in either song structure (“Starman”) or vocal style (“Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide”), they’re ambitious enough to try for Bowie’s storytelling on “(Antichrist Television Blues)” – what has been and has remained my favorite song by them since I first heard it. Let’s ignore the title (I bet the band couldn’t even tell you why they put the words in parentheses) and talk about the good stuff, because my word, all of it is good. The controlled crescendo – starting with an acoustic guitar and naturally ending with a performance by the entire band – works extremely well with Butler’s narrative, beginning with a humble portrayal of the subject (“I don’t wanna work in a building downtown” – who does?) and slowly transforming him into an unlikeable person who’d sell his daughter for profit and then defend himself for it. I love how frantic the music gets during the song’s final stanza and how the band just cuts it off with Butler (as Simpson)’s “Oh tell me Lord, am I the Antichrist?” as if they shut the T.V. off and had enough of his ramblings. Listen especially to the song’s bridge (following Butler’s “How come nothing tastes good?”; from 3:30 to 3:50), because Régine Chassagne gives her best vocal performance ever, soaring higher and higher in a way that i would never have suspected her capable of after hearing her diffident vocals on Funeral.
I’ve long held the opinion that, for the most part, you can judge an album based solely on its unreleased b-sides. It’s easy to see why “Broken Window” and “Surf City (Eastern Bloc)” were left off the proper album – they sound comparatively undercooked. But frankly, they’re both gems that most any other band would be jealous of having, and they demonstrate that the band were on a creative high at this point in time.
The second best album of 2007. The harshness of Canadian winters seem slightly more removed with this playing under my earmuffs. I’m sure the down jacket helps too.