Arcade Fire - Neon Bible
Burn the disbelievers. String up those who don't feel it. Shun those who gawp at its dark ‘weirdness’. Kill anybody you know who tells you they find the music of Canada’s supremely atypical Arcade Fire “depressing”. Right, that’s my immediate social circle trimmed somewhat. Me and you, my friend, we can move on. Into the woods ? Follow me …
‘Neon Bible’, the ‘difficult’ second album by the most fascinating, most féted collective to emerge from popular music’s left field in recent years, shudders with joyous, brooding vehemence and vitality. It is, unquestionably, a new record by the Arcade Fire; it sounds like nobody else with a record deal or an NME byline today and, the ultimate accolade, just proven, here’s a band who, though they don’t officially carry it, demand and suit the addition of that all empowering “the” to their name.
So, ahem, is it any good ? There’s a question. On one level, and please indulge this possibility for a moment, who cares ? It’s the new album by Arcade Fire, for god’s sake. They have had the good grace to dispatch eleven new songs for our consumption and, in the week that Mani from Primal Scream encouraged the underclass of beer-swilling, minor chord-abusing soundalike delinquents at the shameful NME Awards to “keep it up” (Please no, you fuckwits !), it is a joy to report that something with any semblance of ‘other’, of dark introspection, of poetic enterprise is winning bruised hearts in massive numbers. It seems odds-on that this week’s tour will coincide with the band’s first UK number 1 album.
Is it any good ? Oh, Christ ... It is magnificent. Did you dare expect any less ? But be realistic, friends. Don’t go missing the point and having a problem with ‘Intervention’ because it sounds like ‘Phantom of the Opera’, be troubled by the punked-up country jam of ‘(Antichrist Televison Blues)’ because it tramples on a new genre for the band over the course of six minutes. Open your mind, open everything. They are asking much of us and we should show we can keep up. The palette is not dissimilar this time around but there are arresting tweaks that fit them well. Cheap thrills and pleasing, stirring chord changes are not to the fore.
On one level, ‘Neon Bible’ is quite the most elementary record I’ve heard in an age. Unshowy and studied, it turns its nose up at whoring itself for our kicks. A friend recently heard debut ‘Funeral’ and, largely positive, admitted there were a few tracks he didn’t like. He will have a similar problem here and would miss the point similarly. Not until track four when the aforementioned ‘Intervention’ announces itself with a church organ swirl that cannot help but recall Lloyd Webber’s most grandiose, even by his standards, moment, do you get anything even vaguely ‘catchy’, an appealing hook. For the opening volley of ‘Black Mirror’, ‘Keep the Car Running’ and ‘Neon Bible’, you need to be in thrall to the band per se, their sound, their intent. Partway through the former, where the rhythm halts and the players de-clutch for a few bars, you focus on the instruments, you smell the lyrical thrust (Broadly, dread, fear, uncertainty – all the good stuff) and … it’s enough. More than enough. For the first time in an age, I must stress this again if only to test my own conviction : here is an album that almost precludes judgement of the empirical kind. You will want to know : is it as good as the first ? I really don’t know. I dare to hope however that, with time, it may come to co-exist peacefully with its older sibling in a way that sees little or no overlap between the two. I picture people liking one but hating the other, perhaps. ‘Neon Bible’ seems so utterly distinct from its predecessor, but yet so clearly the work of those who crafted both, that my head spins. In short, all awed questioning aside, it’s a marvel, a fulmination, a deliverance of the type of ‘rock’ that sets its creators apart as, if not unique, at the very least, over-reaching and over-achieving.
More specifically, if we must, ‘Neon Bible’ is a tad more baroque than its predecessor and lays on the eccentricity maybe a few microns more thickly. You will notice the presence of church organ, hurdy-gurdy, hammond and strings. Electric guitar is largely relegated or absent. Win’s vocals, a masterful carrier of ennui and desolation, are stronger, more chest, less throat. Regine’s backing, you should be glad to hear, is considerably more in evidence this time around. She takes lead on the epic segue ‘Black Wave/Bad Vibrations’ and offers the sweetest harmony on the album’s punchiest, most instantly loveable exploit, the reworked ‘No Cars Go’. As an ensemble the playing is crazy but diligent, a little bit Bad Seeds meets Crowded House in an underground drinking den at 3am. The instrumentation demands elegance but they play with the spirit of punk in their corpuscles. The fractured elegy of ‘My Body is a Cage’ is the heady denouement and it reaches skewed, symphonic heights, wavering and fragile.
By turns rhapsodic, artful and daring, ‘Neon Bible’ will, I think, please converts while allowing its creators to continue accidentally taking over the world. A triumph beyond hope. This is their proclamation and we are devout, reverent, rightly zealous. Sanctify yourselves.