Even if you don't agree with the Arcade Fire's theatrics, music, or very existence, you have to admit they know how to run with a theme. With their new album, Neon Bible, the band attempt to do for religion what their last release, Funeral, did for youth. Neon Bible is a collection of snapshots, each song a little portrait trying to encapsulate something much larger. All the basic themes are still here: the burgeoning sense of awareness, the search for truth, the anxious look into the future. The biggest difference is this album's protagonist. Writing from the POV of a coming-of-age teenager is standard fare in rock, but far less common is Neon's Bible's sympathetic take on the repressed Christian.
Escaping the church is harder than sneaking out a window while the folks are asleep. The character created by songwriter Win Butler may no longer practice the faith of his youth, but he doesn't entirely view it with an atheist's scorn. Even when contempt is driving the song, as on the title track, whose rapture-toting lyrics Butler voices just above a whisper, there's a begrudging respect. It's as if Butler needs to get the story out without showing his support.
The Arcade Fire's grandiose anthems still take recording cues from the '80s—those flattened snare hits stick out like shoulder pads—but the sound is rootsier, a bit more Big Country than Echo and the Bunnymen. (For more Pin the Tail on the Influence, check out the muffled-heartbeat-in-an-old-drum thump of "My Body Is a Cage"—it's very "In the Air Tonight.")
In "(Antichrist Television Blues)," his most captivating display of storytelling to date, Butler channels Springsteen, turning Joe Simpson into a working-class hero who justifies the exploitation of his daughter as a way to bring humanity back to God. But by the time he reaches the line about offering her up to the world, "so that they can see themselves inside [his] little girl," the lord clearly has nothing to do with it. (Maybe Ashlee was some sort of divine punishment for Joe's skeeviness.)
Butler has certainly plumbed new depths of social commentary, but the band sacrifices one of their most heralded traits—unrestrained enthusiasm—for that extra layer of insight. Apparently, coming to terms with God isn't as much fun as coming to terms with death. Churchgoing indie rockers like Sufjan Stevens and Pedro the Lion have a strange fascination with sucking the joy out of their own beloved spirituality, and the Arcade Fire follow suit. As if acknowledging the lack of fun on Neon Bible, they squeeze in a rehash of the best track from their 2003 debut EP. The first draft of the distinctly secular "No Cars Go" was an infectious, six-minute rush, crammed with hooks and hollers. Here, no yelp is out of place, orchestral swells take precedence over wheezing accordions, and the breathless lifeboat roll call that was nearly lost in the original's unbridled race to the finish is scripted. Even the flute flutter that kicks off the song sounds like the beginning of a Broadway overture presented by Disney. Like the rest of the album, the new version leaves little room for error. I don't claim to know much about Christianity, but I've heard that that savior guy doesn't expect perfection from mankind. A WWJD? poster in the recording studio couldn't hurt.
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