Saturday, March 31, 2007

“MTV What Have You Done To Me?”

If Arcade Fire’s Funeral was like waking after a long coma, their 2007 release Neon Bible is sitting down to a cup of tea and the morning paper to find out just what the hell’s been happening while you were asleep. That isn’t to say the new album lacks emotion, but rather while Funeral was a burst of such frantic, anthemic energy and angst, Neon Bible actually takes the time to step back and reflect. It’s much more introverted: the first song is titled “Black Mirror.” While “Black Mirror” is similar to the opener on Funeral, “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)”, in that they are both piano charged, fist pumping beams of energy, the more recent release looks inward, as opposed to “Tunnels” and the rest of Funeral, which is directs its angst outward at everything from parents to corrupt political regimes.

To be sure, Neon Bible continues to display that combination of angst and beauty that makes Arcade Fire the most exciting band around. It just takes the time to look inward once in a while, or at least it attempts to. The aforementioned “Black Mirror” tells us how the “mirror knows no reflection.” Meanwhile, in the same song, the Arcade Fire that we all became enamored with a few years ago shows up: “Un! Deux! Trois! Dis: Miroir Noir!” in a jarring fury.

“Keep the Car Running” joins “Antichrist Television Blues” as two songs that create a sound from Arcade Fire that they haven’t attempted before. The sound is almost Bruce Springsteen circa 1982. Both are excellent songs written from a the voice of a third party that contains elements of Springsteen’s best songwriting: one about an apparent fugitive and another about a man who can’t find a job. Bruce Springsteen made a career creating songs like these. Too, these songs would simply not have belonged on Funeral. On Neon Bible, they fit right in with the trajectory of the album.

It is after this point, however, that the album diverges most significantly from their previous effort. The title track is almost whisper quiet in sound and in message. And after the organ-heavy “Intervention” comes the two-part jaunt “Black Wave / Bad Vibrations” and the rain-soaked, noir anthem “Ocean of Noise.” It is at this point that you start to feel that Arcade Fire is taking their time. Whereas Funeral grabbed your eyelids and didn’t let go, Neon Bible gives you time to breathe.

To suggest that Album X is better or worse than Album Y is a nice time-killer, but ultimately fruitless and pointless. We like to assign music a ranking, but isn’t it as pointless as a ranking of the “Top 10 Paintings Ever?” This may seem like a cop out of saying that Neon Bible isn’t as “good” as Funeral. And truth be told, if I had to choose one of the two albums to be stranded on a desert island with, I’d pick Funeral, but that would be true of almost any album ever created: Funeral was just so eye-opening that it isn’t about to be recreated. Nor does it need to be. Funeral gave us something unique and expanded the horizons of music in the 21st century. Neon Bible gives us something else unique and genre-bending.

The last paragraph aside, what separates Arcade Fire from other bands is simply the resonating emotion they are able to conjure and tap into. With that, the last three songs of Neon Bible strike that chord more than anything else they’ve created. “Windowsill” is a climactic ballad that harps on the whole “Don’t want to live in my father’s house no more” attitude that Arcade Fire does extremely well. The line, “MTV what have you done to me?” is brilliant and resonating. This track is followed by what is possibly the penultimate Arcade Fire song: “No Cars Go.” If you were to create a song as an “Intro to Arcade Fire” look no further. It has the hyper, pulsating drum beats, the “us kids know” mentality, the crescendos that begin to sound like marching orders, and there’s simply no better band in the world at shouting, “hey!” as demonstrated in this song. Finally, the album ends with the shockingly powerful “My Body is a Cage,” a mixture of erotic anguish and haunting self-loathing. The organs once again show up on this track in full force.

If nothing else, Neon Bible reassures that the Arcade Fire are not a one-album band. While the impact and trajectory of their career remains unclear, what is clear is that for the next decade, everything the Arcade Fire do will be awaited with baited breath.
Arcade Fire - "Black Mirror"

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