by Jake Doolin
Vulture Hound Music is looking back at 10 albums which turn 10 years old in 2017. This week Jacob Doolin is ready to explain why, 10 years on, Arcade Fire‘s Neon Bible deserves a lot more credit…
Loving the runt of an artists discography is always a tough task, because more often than not the haters do have a point. As much as I hold tight to my belief that 808s and Heartbreak, Hail to the Thief or Daisy are better than anything else in their respective artists libraries, it is hard to defend them from the almost universal backlash those records receive.
Arcade Fire‘s Neon Bible is one such release for me. As much hate as it receives it’s my favorite Arcade Fire release by a large margin. Coming off the back of 2004’s breakthrough album, Funeral, Neon Bible was everything that record was not. While not a particularly light record by any means, Funeral was for the most part a hopeful one that leaned heavily on nostalgia and the familial ties between the band.
Neon Bible by contrast was a darker, more cynical record that abandoned the childlike wonderment of the past and set it sights on the dark realities of adulthood. The family atmosphere from the first album remained but instead of sounding like a unit every song on Neon Bible feels like they’re battling just to stay together.
Just compare the openers of the two albums; where Funeral‘s ‘Neighborhoods #1 (Tunnels)’ is about the song’s narrator finding hope in a possible future with his lover, The narrator on Neon Bible’s ‘Black Mirror’ is accepting that the darkness in life is inescapable:
“It cares not about your dreams,
It cares not for your pyramid schemes,
Their names are never spoken,
The curse is never broken”
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Even on more hopeful sounding tracks like ‘Keep The Car Running’ (the first of many songs on the album that wears its Springsteen inspiration on its sleeve), the story is based around a bank robbing couple facing death at every turn. It’s a more mature record for sure, which might have put off some people, but in the darkness lies some of the band’s most thoughtful storytelling.
‘(Antichrist Television Blues)’ is a heartbreaking tale of a man trying to use religion to bring people closer to him but in doing so only ends up driving them further away, while ‘Intervention’ is an examination of a military man and his use of God to justify his misdeeds. If it’s not clear by now religion is the main target of Win Butlers lyrics and for the most part he finds it to be both a comfort and destroyer of people’s lives.
“A vile of hope and a vile of pain,
In the light they both look the same,
Poured them out on into the world,
On every boy and every girl” – ‘Neon Bible’
Butler is clearly wrestling with a lot here but instead of giving clear answers he lets his questions around God and life hang in the ether for the listener to ponder over. It’s another hard part of the record to take; no more thinking back to the days of playing with your friends at the park, instead Neon Bible replaces that with lingering thoughts of where you’re going in the afterlife.
Perhaps this stems from the tremulous times the record was born out of. The ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan along with the beginnings of the recession made for imagining a bright future almost impossible. Win Butler was seeing it all play out on television screens which started to warp his own way of seeing things; “People don’t necessarily know that they’re taking on a worldview, or absorbing ideas (while watching television)”, Butler told Pitchfork in 2007. “It doesn’t necessarily seem like (it’s happening), but it definitely does. I find it very easy to get sucked in. It starts to affect how you see the world”.
This view of the world didn’t just influence the lyrics, it had an effect on the moody sound of Neon Bible too. Recorded in a church, the albums cavernous sound is felt throughout, from the booming organ on ‘Intervention’ to way the vocals feel so much larger on ‘No Cars Go’. It all culminates in the stunning finale, ‘My Body Is A Cage’, which encapsulates everything that came before it. Dealing with the social anxiety of the character they’ve been describing, the band give their final thoughts on the approaching future they’re not quiet ready for.
“I’m living in an age,
that calls darkness light,
Though my language is dead,
Still the shapes fill my head,
I’m living in an age,
Whose name I don’t know,
Through the fear keeps me moving,
Still my heart beats slow.” – ‘My Body Is A Cage’
There might be fear in those words but the song manages to find a bit of light at the end as the band sings “set my body free”. It’s the kind of hope that could only come from the realists who made an album like this and not the wide-eyed kids from the Funeral era. The somber Neon Bible era of the band wouldn’t last long though, their follow-up The Suburbs was a return to a more lighthearted and nostalgic style while their last release Reflektor was a dancehall inspired mess of emotion.
That’s why Neon Bible means so much to me still, it feels like the one time the band took a risk and came out with something grand. It was a necessary come down from Funeral and one that speaks more to the current time now than ever. It might not be the most beloved of their work but it’s the one that going to stick with you.