It’s 16 years since the Avalanches’ era-defining ‘Since I Left You’. How can a follow-up that took so long sound so meh?
Arcade Fire: Neon Bible
Canadians’ new testament to the world takes on epic proportions
“Mirror mirror, on the wall/Show me where them bombs will fall” – ‘Black Mirror’. “There’s a big black wave in the middle of the sea” – ‘Black Wave/Bad Vibrations’. “World War Three, when are you coming for me?” – ‘Windowsill’.
Turns out mourning is in their blood. Now that the personal family losses that informed ‘Funeral’ are fading, Win Butler and his black parade of professional mourners have turned their tear ducts to more global tragedies: the Iraq war, the tsunami, the end of the world in general. It’s as if, having proved so successful at capturing their own fervent anguish on album number one, Arcade Fire have decided to form an international grief-keeping force to keep the entire globe permanently shredding its shirts. What’s that!? Up in the sky! It’s Team Canada: Pain Police, spinning a black armband around the bicep of the world! Ca-na-DA – sob yeah!
And their service is second to none. As a band who go to extraordinary lengths to convey their emotional maelstroms (onstage, every one of them screams and writhes as if possessed by the spirit of a thousand Conor Obersts; they beat drums, keyboards, guitars and each other’s crash helmets with maniacal abandon and gigs usually end with a parade to a car park for a Clash cover or two), their second album ‘Neon Bible’ contains every ounce of the impassioned sound and fury of their live shows. Heralded by a series of miniscule gigs in London’s grand halls and churches that you needed to be either Chris Martin or a tunnel-building expert to get into, ‘Neon Bible’ is a climactic monolith of a record in the grand tradition of melodic transatlantic clamour rock, as extolled by Mercury Rev and The Flaming Lips. But while the Lips hold Barbarella parties for gangs of blissed-out Santas in pods orbiting Neptune, Arcade Fire are of more Biblical stock. As the title suggests, they’re standing at the gates of hell as the apocalypse rages, brandishing Satan’s brimstone iPod, set to shuffle on a playlist called ‘All The Best Tunes’.
It begins with a thunderstorm. An ominous roll of kettle drums approach across a spectral synth landscape to where Win, fresh from a nightmare and still singing as if constantly on the verge of mental breakdown, is staring out at the pitch-black ocean and finding the darkness reflected in his own war-weary soul. We’re facing the onrushing orchestral tidal wave of ‘Black Mirror’, a shifting sea-roll of guitar crescendos and violin eddies that overwhelms, confuses and eventually recedes – after four or five listens – to expose a delicate, devastated melody washed up in its wreckage. We’re clearly at the mercy of some elemental musical forces here: indeed the entire record has the rhythm of a mighty tide to it. Hence the jubilant mandolin jive of ‘Keep The Car Running’ comes on like a tribal celebration of having survived the opening song while the hushed acoustic title track that follows is essentially the mile retreat of the surf before the next tsunami attack.
A church organ strikes up a cheery disco wedding march. Win steps swiftly in before we can throw any confetti (“Working for the church while my family dies… hear the soldier groan/We’ll go at it alone”). And so ‘Intervention’ builds into a stirring pop memorial to Iraq war victims and a rallying cry for revolution against the White House lies (“Who’s gonna throw the first stone?/Who’s gonna reset the bone?”). See, ‘Neon Bible’ is no mere wail against the woes of the world but is, like its predecessor, an astutely political record. To wit, ‘Black Wave/Bad Vibrations’: while the second, Win-sung half – thumping funereal drums, wave crash noises and all – seems to bemoan the tsunami tragedy of 2004, the Régine-sung first half is a sister-piece to (‘Funeral’’s) ‘Haiti’ wherein she appears to be escaping a civil war-struck province. A reference to guerrilla-held areas of Aceh that were reconciled in the aftermath of the disaster, perhaps? Or have we been watching way too much Sky News 24 here?
Time to spin the globe back home, to a cold bed in Montreal laid waste by more personal battles: “The ocean of violence/Between me and you/It’s time to work it out”, goes the harmonious mariachi blues lilt of ‘Ocean Of Noise’, while the fantastic blue-collar factory rattle of ‘(Antichrist Television Blues)’ is a vibrant exposé of 9/11 paranoia from the point of view of a terrified stage parent that also, crucially, manages to rock like Bruce Springsteen doing the dirty boogaloo with a teenage Courteney Cox. In hell, obviously.
And as we stand, awestruck, through the agoraphobic sociopathy of ‘Windowsill’ (“I don’t wanna fight in a holy war/I don’t want the salesman knocking at my door”) and the ecstatic escape anthem ‘No Cars Go’, waiting for the final wave crash of the dark Armageddon blues of ‘My Body Is A Cage’ to finish us off; as we stand staring humanity’s darknesses (war, cataclysm, hatred and fear) square in the eye, we know we’ve been brought here by an Important Record. A record with the bleak-yet-redemptive spirit of REM’s ‘Automatic For The People’ and the musical magnificence of a ‘Deserter’s Songs’. But also a record that – as much as ‘London Calling’ or ‘What’s Going On’ – holds a deep, dark, truthful Black Mirror up to our turbulent times. After the funeral, the awakening.
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