Arcade Fire – Neon Bible

Arcade Fire – Neon Bible
Merge; 4 ½ stars

You have heard about the dissonant church organs of “Intervention” and Win Butler’s channeling Bruce Springsteen and an Episcopalian choir.  You have heard about how he smashed his acoustic guitar on SNL.  You have heard that Neon Bible entered Billboard at #2.  You have heard that the Big Important Topics are all discussed and analyzed: war, politics, and (especially) religion.  You have heard that the title is taken from a John Kennedy Toole novella.
You have not been able to avoid the onslaught of AF headlines in the past weeks.  You are aware – and do not care – that they snuffed Bono after a show.  You are not giddy to learn that they play acoustic shows in venue lobbies after filling the auditoriums with their increasingly lush sound.
You grin a little when you hear that “(Antichrist Television Blues)” is about Joe Simpson, father of Jessica and Ashlee.
You have had conversations with your friends arguing that Neon Bible isn’t that big a deal.  You begin to believe yourself less and less. You give in.
It’s finally here.
The haunting, otherworldly lo-fi baroque of Funeral is still present, though Neon Bible is somehow far more ambitious in its grandeur. Neon Bible is, simply put, the older brother of Funeral, more pissed off for its knowledge of the world; pissed off at false wars and misrepresentation of religion.
As if the title weren’t a clue, the theme of Christian hypocrisy dominates the album, from the lyrics to the truly menacing church organs that drone throughout the record.  “Antichrist,” one of the two musical centerpieces and what may be Neon Bible’s mission statement, is Butler’s examination of the hypocrisy of the aforementioned Joe Simpson, a pastor who has apparently encouraged his (Christian) daughters to flaunt themselves for the nation.  As the band chugs along with an E Street shuffle, Butler expertly walks the fine line between criticism and name-calling as he portrays Simpson’s struggle through a series of imagined prayers given by Simpson.  Rather than blanket-condemn Simpson (and perhaps by extension, the culture of consumerism in Christian America), Butler attempts to understand him, imagining his conscience, his struggle between Christian success and worldly success.  What could have easily turned into a NOFX song turns into something of an intimate portrait that leaves the listener angry, yes, but perhaps a bit sympathetic.  It may be an unwillingness to treat one another in this manner (i.e. doing unto other as we would have them do unto us) that is keeping America nice and bisected along spiritual lines.
I may be wrong, but I think that this is what art is supposed to do.  I’ve got this image in my head that people in past civilizations did nothing but sit around and discuss art and the issues that it helps us to understand.  Great art raises questions and attempts to answer them, and it helps us to understand one another.
Of course, none of this would matter if the music weren’t any good.  The Arcade Fire sound stronger than ever on Neon Bible, filtering 80s girl pop through a sacred veil.  Given the lofty subject nature, each song is appropriately majestic, building up layers of strings and synths such as its predecessor did, only with glimmering, hopeful vibe keys lacing their way through the top of the mix.  Perhaps that’s the big difference between Funeral and Neon Bible: hope.
Butler’s voice, which has strengthened considerably in the last three years, and his newfound confidence behind the mic, carries the record.  The band – which has only gotten tighter for the three years of touring they have undertaken – feeds off of Butler’s enthusiasm; even the quiet songs push to the breaking point.  In the case of “Black Wave / Bad Vibration” the point is broken and Régine Chassagne’s haunting melody gives way to violent slashes of bass and Butler’s howl.
Part of the brilliance of Neon Bible, though, is that it is as accessible as it is innovative; no matter how many hurdy-gurdies the band throw in, the record never loses its pop sensibility.  Despite the reaching ambition Arcade Fire exhibit here, they refuse to alienate their rapidly-expanding audience.
So, you give in.  You realize that you don’t just like Neon Bible, you love it and you love everything that it stands for.  You realize that, erg, it really may be one of the most important records of the decade.  You realize why people want music to sound like this so badly.  You realize that for art to make a statement and change the world, it has to be accessible.  You realize that the world where people discuss Great Art and Important Matters still exists.

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