Sacred Cows: an occasional series where NME writers re-appraise classic albums
“After the ‘Funeral’, the wake.” That’s how every single review of ‘Neon Bible’ began in 2007. Every single one. But just in case we got the wrong impression, each one went on to stress this didn’t make ‘Neon Bible’ a party album. Well, blow me down.
It was never going to be a fiesta of shackle-unburdening relief of course, what with it being an album by Arcade Fire, but ‘Neon Bible’ spoils the post-‘Funeral’ mood in more ways than non-traditional. It disdains its predecessor’s zest and scowls meaningfully over the grieving masses.
Now I’ve no intention of battering it – who’d risk one of Win Butler’s potent, malevolent glances? – but this is a half-decent album that mesmerised the world into pegging it one of the new century’s defining meisterwerks, letting it top critical lists in a year that alone contained LCD Soundsystem’s ‘Sound Of Silver’, Radiohead’s ‘In Rainbows’, ‘The Good, The Bad & The Queen’, MIA’s ‘Kala’, Battles’ ‘Mirrored’, I could go on. I probably will. Let’s have a look at the kind of accolade chucked its way.
“Arcade Fire have streamlined the raw, large sound of ‘Funeral’” (Pitchfork, March 2007)
The childish response? “No they haven’t.” It starts off well enough with ‘Black Mirror’ rattling in insidiously like the hideous contraption coming through the trees in Night Of The Demon, and ‘Keep The Car Running’ is a masterclass in delay and release, but momentum’s killed stone dead with the title track. It’s named after the John Kennedy Toole novel but maybe they would’ve been better off with A Confederacy Of Dunces, Butler coming on like Ignatius J Reilly, splenetically fretting about his “valve”.
Whatever, where there’s no “streamlining” at all is in the overwrought hurtle of ‘The Well And The Lighthouse’ where crescendo follows crescendo with no discernible quickening of heartbeat or in ‘Black Wave/Bad Vibrations’’ lumpen epic posturing. ‘Funeral’ had the crescendos and epic heft but it felt human and those tunes stuck. ‘Neon Bible’’s middle section in particular is bombast with no reward, which brings us to…
”Arcade Fire’s Gothic panorama comes alive when they indulge their most bombastic ambitions” (New Statesman, March 2007)
Maybe, at a stretch, it holds for ‘Intervention’, which certainly reeks of ambition from the echoing organ blast on. But its closest cousin is Boy Meets Girl’s so-bad-it’s-good 1988 single ‘Waiting For A Star To Fall’, not the obvious touchstone for a Gothic panorama, and its bright pop blast sticks out like a sore thumb on this sour record.
”One of the most unapologetically propulsive records of the decade” (Pitchfork, December 2007)
Unapologetic seems fair – concessions are not what Arcade Fire are about – but ‘Neon Bible’ is only propulsive in fits and starts. After ‘Intervention’ signals what should be a new beginning it sinks like a stone, ‘Ocean Of Noise’ the lead pendulum swinging dolefully between the echoing walls of ‘Black Wave/Bad Vibrations’ and ‘The Well And The Lighthouse’. We’re back on the open road for ‘(Antichrist Television Blues)’ but immediately dragged down by the pale ‘Rebellion (Lies)’ retread of ‘Windowsill’. ‘No Cars Go’’s rousing climax is buzz-killed by the sobbing ‘My Body Is A Cage’.
”These songs are great as a coherent album and when taken as standalone tracks” (Drowned In Sound, March 2007)
Any coherence is surely undermined by loss of direction, although there’s a certain glue in the lyrical themes – the sick god of television in ‘(Antichrist Television Blues)’ and ‘Windowsill’, war’s blank destruction in ‘Intervention’ and ‘Ocean Of Noise’.
Standalone tracks? Really, it feels like only ‘Intervention’, ‘Keep The Car Running’ and ‘No Cars Go’ (arguably better in its original EP version) would stand proud by themselves. And ‘(Antichrist Television Blues)’ perhaps. Mind you, there’s “being influenced by Bruce Springsteen” and then there’s “surgically excising his larynx and grafting it onto your own”. We’ve got The Gaslight Anthem for that, and Noah And The Whale got slaughtered for daring to don the blue collar last year.
But let’s not bury ‘Neon Bible’, let’s just see it for what it is. After the ‘Funeral’, that empty feeling.