By Shain Shapiro
The more reviews I read of Neon Bible, the more of a consensus I discover. Everyone except David Fricke and a handful of others loves this album. Even the garrulous Pitchfork loved it, and I thought they were trained to dislike everything, at least a bit. I also love this album but I find it thoroughly flawed. Yet, these flaws unmask its brilliance. Arcade Fire is supposed to be far from perfect.
These flaws reveal their spiny tentacles on the first two cuts, "Black Mirror" and "Keep The Car Running." "Black Mirror" is a haunting, almost anti-climactic opening to the album everyone in the indie world was waiting for. These four-minutes let everyone down but I believe that's what Win Butler and company wanted. From the onset, Neon Bible asserts itself as a sum of its flaws, both personally and musically. Whatever The Arcade Fire is trying to get away from is further illuminated in politicized downer "Keep the Car Running." The reverberated piano and string work is brilliant but the melody lags from start-to-finish, only picking up when Butler and wife Regine Chassagne delve into full choral excess. Again, the Montreal septet is discomforted with something in this song, the same thing that drove them to blacken their mirror one song previous and the impulse behind the general brooding, uncomfortable atmosphere.
Yet, the more I listen to the album, the more I understand and appreciate why the band elected to start so discordantly. As the album marches on in frowns and black suits, this gothic nature becomes more open, inviting the listener to share in their woes. On "Black Waves," Chassagne instructs her demons to "run from the memory," to which Butler retorts, "Stop now before it's too late. Nothing lasts forever. That's the way it's gonna be." This thin veil of optimism, an ethos that prefers to deal with one's shit rather than run away from it, explains the disjointed opening and subsequent brilliance. Instead of dragging their feet, The Arcade Fire faced their fears from the onset and opened up new ways to grapple with them.
The title cut is a waste of two-and-a-half minutes and the only true musical glitch on the record. After that, each song is a dark-tinged masterpiece with labyrinthine elements that slowly emerge as each door is opened. "Ocean of Noise" is fucking haunting, a scathing glimpse into Butler's psyche. Owen Pallett's gorgeous string orchestrations dominate this one alongside a Hungarian Orchestra. The melancholic twang of "Ocean of Noise" is immediately eliminated by "The Well and the Lighthouse," where the apocryphal salvation Butler is striving to avoid gathers steam and dominates the rest of the record. Again the orchestration is brilliant, climactic and downright sorrowful.
The band goes on to critique MTV on "Antichrist Television Blues" and "Windowsill," before returning to the grave with the Church organ buttressed "No Cars Go." Much better than the earlier "Us Kids Know" version, this tune is soporific. Butler pretends to wake from a nightmare but actually revels in the demonic nature of his dream. "No Cars Go," the ironic "Intervention", and disc-closer "My Body Is A Cage" are as piercing as a bird trying to scream its way out of a cage. This triad of depressing diatribes concludes this collection in impressively morbid style.
Arcade Fire offers no happy endings, only the vague promise of some sort of intervention. I remain grappled with the symbolism on Neon Bible because I am forever cursed with trying to locate the key to unlock my body, my cage. Yet, like Butler, I have no clue where this key is or if it exists at all. And there, right there, is where the flaws come full circle. Maybe instead of trying to desperately unlock the cage, I should try and redecorate or at least find a way to deal with the flaws buried inside. The Arcade Fire has.
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