21 July 2007

The Neon Bible

Friday, April 27, 2007

It's been a good spring for new music. So far I've been very news-oriented here but I'd also like to use this space to comment on books, movies, music, and other cultural goings-on. Since I like to be able to live with a record for a while before talking too much about it, it's going to take me a while to catch up on the music alone. There have been strong new releases this year from the likes of Modest Mouse, Amy Winehouse, and the Arctic Monkeys (subject of a future post), but my early favorite for album of the year honors is The Neon Bible from Arcade Fire (not "The Arcade Fire" anymore, apparently).

What's most interesting to me about The Neon Bible is its full-on embrace of rock's epic mode, by which I mean less a style of music than a form of address marked by hi-fi sound, salient vocal tracks, and an overriding concern with all things big. Politics being much in the air these days, the latter tendency finds its clearest expression in the Arcade Fire's obvious drive to create some kind of emblematic Bush-era artifact. The album's most moving song climaxes with the rueful refrain "All the reasons I gave were just lies," and there's also a real toe-tapper of a 9/11 tune ("Antichrist Television Blues"). Elsewhere the band contemplates the encroachments of government ("Black Mirror") and religion ("Intervention") and the entire album is suffused in the sense of paranoia and lowered expectations endemic to the era of homeland security (although nothing here is quite as politically pointed as the despondent "Parting of the Sensory" from the new Modest Mouse album).

Normally all this straining after topicality would be a flaw, and possibly a fatal one, but such is the power of the epic mode. To put it bluntly, the band has made a Springsteen record. Much of the The Neon Bible plays like a lost third disc from The River. Thrilling, propulsive rockers like "Keep the Car Running" and "The Well and the Lighthouse" recall The Boss at his exuberant best and everything from the prominence of the organ to the repeated automobile references evokes epic-mode Bruce. Unusual production choices result in a sound that's simultaneously ornate and austere; guitars, strings, brass, choirs, harps, and other instrumentation are relegated to the corners of the mix, leaving Win Butler's vocals front-and-center, suspended in the band's rhytmic thud.

Butler rises to the challenge, rasping and wailing with enough conviction to survive the occasional cringe-inducing lyric ("Workin' for the church while your family dies"). That he inevitably sounds like a more burdened, less confident Springsteen (I'm hardly the first to observe that one of the most frequently recurring words on The Neon Bible is fear) gets to the crux of the whole thing. The essence of this album is precisely its self-consciously nostalgic appeal to the epic gesture. U2's latest album, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, was notable as the first album on which the band fully embraced its own outsize ambitions—it was, as Rob Sheffield approvingly observed in Rolling Stone, "grandiose music from grandiose men." But for the creators of The Neon Bible and others of their generation, such ambitions remain tantalizingly unrealizable; their reach will always just exceed their grasp and they know it. Even as it emulates the likes of Bono and Springsteen, The Neon Bible shows that these men are already mythic figures, products of a more comprehensible era that's receded behind some historical vanishing point. By the end of the album, Arcade Fire has left its models behind and is already covering itself: the penultimate song is a gorgeous, balls-out rendering of the band's 2003 "No Cars Go." Amplified in every sense, the new version is a career highlight, resolving an entire album's worth of dread and longing into a blind ecsatic rush of speed and volume.

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