“When I was little I had nightmares in which I had to escape from people who were coming for me, I felt enormous fear towards organizations, governments, other people… and I have noticed that these feelings resonate a lot with the current world climate. It’s strange to recognize emotions that you felt asleep fully functioning in the real world.” That’s how frontman Win Butler introduced Arcade Fire’s second album, a ‘Neon Bible’ in which the band’s intention was to “sound like being in the middle of the ocean at night”. Ambitious or bombastic? That has been one of the big questions with Arcade Fire and ‘Neon Bible’ – for which the band bought a fucking abandoned church to record – was not going to reduce that fame.
Being ‘Funeral’ an album much more focused on the personal, on family and community relationships, and on the process of maturity, ‘Neon Bible’ points more outwards, wanting to make an x-ray of the world you find yourself in, and before to which one is not surprised that the characters of ‘Funeral’ tried not to grow up.
If in the review of ‘Funeral’ I commented that, despite its title, it wasn’t a dark album, this one is; we could even say that the successful atmosphere of ‘Neon Bible’ is, more than dark, almost apocalyptic. Religion, armies, big companies, television (neon bible) and the media, corruption and lack of empathy are some of the constants of an album that was released shortly before the album was released. first iPhone, perhaps one of the greatest symbols of the era that would come later and in which the complaints and fears of Arcade Fire do not seem to have diminished, but on the contrary. In fact, aspects of the album that in 2007 seemed exaggerated today are not.
Within that “ah, have you grown? Well, welcome to the world: this is what awaits you” which is all this, Win said that his initial idea was a minimalist production that represented all that loneliness, but that the songs asked him for the opposite, and that this “lack of control” represented by the ocean -another leitmotif of the album- had to be on the songs: not only drummer Jeremy Gara and violinist Sarah Neufeld joined the group, but also instruments such as the mandolin, the accordion, the hurdy-gurdy and the famous organ.
And it would not only be recorded in the church: Michael Pärt produced recordings with the Budapest Film Orchestra and a military choir from Budapest, and the band would travel to New York to record by the Hudson River and thus be “close to the water”. Win, Régine and company would cite among their influences for this second work Bruce Springsteen – of whom we already saw bits and pieces in the first-, but also Elvis Presley and even Bob Dylan. And watch out, because precisely the producer of ‘Blonde on Blonde’, Bob Johnston, spoke wonders about ‘Neon Bible’, saying that it reminded him of the Beatles, and that “there are songs on that album that are better than anything Lennon did ”. There it is na.
I don’t know if they are superior to Lennon’s or not, but certainly two of the best songs here are the car duo: ‘Keep the Car Running’ and ‘No Cars Go’. The first is where the influence of Springsteen (who came to sing it with them) becomes more evident, and also another shadow that hangs over this album: that of George Orwell. The similarities between the protagonist of this song and Winston Smith are not unfamiliar to Win, who drew from Orwell a lesson on patriotism (“true patriotism has to do with loving a place enough to try to improve it, sometimes I fall into too negative a view of the world”) to apply to this song.
Both this and ‘No Cars Go’ (rework for the better of a song already contained in their first EP) are the two optimistic points of the album: in both, the protagonist is closer to the revolution, and to achieving victory over the void that prevails in the rest of the tracklist. The happiness that exists in the sleep state is the metaphor on which ‘No Cars Go’ is based, a path of joy and epicness (a lot of epicness) towards a place where there will be nothing of all that torments us, and which is represented by the “black mirror”. Because yes, the album is called ‘Neon Bible’ but it could have been named after the song that opens it: in ‘Black Mirror’ a reference is made to television, mobile phones and technology, but also to defeat and the emptiness that dominates the society described by Canadians. Oh, in case you’re wondering: yes, Charlie Brooker said that the title of his successful series comes from this song.
There is little more room for the positive here: the “black mirror” is more of a black hole that swallows any hint of hope and struggle, being ‘Ocean of Noise’ and its “now who where among us still believes has a choice ? Not I!” the clearest example of this. If the ocean represents the lack of control, the “noise” mentioned here is the one that reaches a person from a very young age, a noise aimed at consumerism and perpetuating a system that will never stop. That also translates into the kids who end up fighting in wars without fully understanding why (‘Intervention’ is composed in full outrage at the US military “intervention” in Iraq) and what the misuse of religion can entail such as the misuse of technology.
The hypocrisy that can exist in “pious” people – understand the irony – is addressed in ‘The Well and the Lighthouse’ and in its almost-sequel, the also Springsteenian ‘(Antichrist Television Blues)’, which takes on the figure of the father by Jessica Simpson to talk about someone who squeezes her daughter and who does it, yes, with God’s blessing. The song becomes increasingly cloudy, with lines as bitter as “oh God, would you send me a child? / cause I wanna put it up on the TV screen” and has a rather brutal double meaning towards the end: “oh my little bird in a cage / I need you to get up for me, up on that stage / and show the men you’re old for your age (…) wanna hold a mirror up to the world / so they can see themselves inside my little girl”.
It is not surprising that our protagonist wants to escape from all this: in the stupendous ‘Windowsill’ he rejects all the “comforts” that this world promises him. He begins by saying “I do n’t want it faster, I do n’t want it free ‘(‘ Everything Now ‘, anyone?), but ends up being much clearer: “I do n’t want to live in America no more’. Who wants dystopia having reality? With references to the “red pill” from ‘Matrix’, he intends to escape, but remember what we have been warned in ‘Black Wave / Bad Vibrations’: the Machiavellian design prevents that small island they dreamed of in ‘No Cars Go’ possible, “je nage / mais les sons me suivent”.
Perhaps there is only one way to escape the noise… and perhaps that is why ‘My Body Is a Cage’ is responsible for closing this horror story. Sometimes understood as a trans allegory, and repopularized by ‘Euphoria’ by including it in its season finale, ‘My Body is a Cage’ summarizes the Dantesque panorama for us: “I’m living in an age that calls darkness light (…) I ‘m living in an age / that screams my name at night / but when I get to the doorway / there’s no one in sight”. The desperate cry for help in the “set my spirit free” of the outro, accompanied by the organ hits, invites us to think that, as in ‘The Downward Spiral’, the end of our protagonist is none other than suicide.
Arcade Fire achieve such narrative and musical excellence with ‘Neon Bible’, even superior to the already fantastic ‘Funeral’, that one might think that this is their best album. How could they have another even better one? But it’s not “the band of the 21st century” just like that: ‘The Suburbs’ and ‘Reflektor’ would come to confirm the Canadians’ status as geniuses.