The Arcade Fire
The First Rock Masterpiece of the New Millennium
Those who saw the Arcade Fire perform around the time of Funeral, its 2004 debut, walked away with that "I've seen the future of rock and roll" look in their eyes. The Montreal band tends to overwhelm people. Just the array of instruments it employs can be daunting: The songs depend on strings and xylophone, gongs and hurdy-gurdy, odd vintage keyboards, as well as guitar, bass, and drums. Ten musicians scurry around the stage in perpetual motion, switching instruments and changing textures to provide the proper cushioning for the grim and often fatalistic pronouncements of songwriter Win Butler.
Lots of rock bands confuse sheer mass of sound with grandeur. Not the Arcade Fire. It concentrated on live performance before it ever hit the studio, and as a result developed unusual ways to underscore and sharpen whatever Butler is obsessing over in the lyrics. Funeral catches this in a nascent, homemade phase; with Neon Bible, the Arcade Fire is in full control of its massive forces. The music billows and swells into a rich orchestral splendor; just as quickly it can become haunting and spare. Every shade serves some purpose—though its songs contain choreographed peaks, the drama of the Arcade Fire feels organic. It's the sound of ten multi-instrumentalists, acolytes in the church of rock, putting every shred of convention (and savage guitars and arcane percussion instruments) into vividly pulsating true-believer music.
Neon Bible took most of a year to make. It was recorded in a church, because the band found studios too constricting. Its songs are about faith, and what happens to ordinary people when their faith has been shattered and disillusionment sets in. That's pretty standard subject matter, but in most rock anthems, the music strides solemnly while the lyrics supply the hope. Neon Bible turns that upside down: The lyrics are borderline despondent, and whatever sunshine there is resides in the cresting, bursting-with-possibility music. On the New Wave–ish suite "Black Wave/Bad Vibrations," for example, Butler radiates ambivalence while the band barrels along like conquering heroes, determined to use all available colors and tones to rouse him from his torpor. These contrasts make Neon Bible the first rock masterpiece of the new millennium.
Released: 2007, Merge
Key Tracks: "Black Mirror," "Keep the Car Running," "Intervention," "Black Wave/Bad Vibrations"
Catalog Choice: Funeral
Next Stop: The Cure: The Head on the Door
After That: Jeff Buckley: Grace
Book Pages: 24–25
#1 from Karen Stasevich, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor - 11/08/2008 4:14
Admittedly, I never got into “Neon Bible,” but Arcade Fire’s “Funeral” was fantastic. Even better are some of the band’s demos/unreleased songs, namely “Cars and Telephones” and “No Cars Go.” I’m thrilled that this band made the list, but they have much more to offer in their earlier works.
#2 from Tom Moon - 11/09/2008 10:50
I disagree. Funeral is a very solid record, but in terms of scope—the orchestrations, the drama inside each song, just the crescendos—Neon Bible is the richer, more fully developed document. I sense that many people who discovered Arcade Fire thru Funeral will always hang on to that record, and that’s to be expected because it’s a monster of a record. Neon Bible is the next step…
Thanks for writing!
#3 from Victor - 02/10/2009 9:10
No, it really should be Funeral.
I listened both, and apprecriated both (tho admittedly Funeral first), but while there are many highlights on Neon Bible (ps Karen: No Cars Go is on Neon Bible as well), the album funeral is perfect from beginning to end, whilst Neon Bible loses pace here and there within.
#4 from David, new york - 08/18/2010 1:19
Really, how does one radiate ambivalence? Well, I listened to learn, but come on, where’s the virtuosity here? A Madoff Masterpiece. Play to the click. Press record. Feel the click. Really feel the click. Concentrate on the click. No Feeeeeling and No Fun. God Save us.
#5 from Tim, Onondaga, MI - 11/08/2010 1:58
Don’t let the haters get to you, Sir Moon. I’m in full agreement. Funeral was indeed a great album, but it took me *much* longer to enjoy it as much as I do Neon Bible. The latter features, as you state, a much broader canvas. People accuse it of being overdone, but that would indicate that it’s simply big for the sake of being big, which isn’t true. Each tiny change in the massive instrumentation evokes a brand new emotional response, each in turn tied to the progressively darker turns the lyrics take as the album progresses.
As much as I enjoy the other two albums, in my opinion Neon Bible is thus far the masterpiece.
#6 from ben, Baltimore MD - 02/15/2011 1:09
What is your view on their most recent album “The Suburbs?”
(It’s quite amazing that it actually won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year.)