Friday, 9 March 2007

Arcade Fire - Neon Bible

Considering its circumstances of conception - death, loss, tragedy, existential woe etc. - Arcade Fire’s slow-burning-to-phenomenally successful debut was a joyous revelation. Far from the mournful, moribund affair it had every right to be, 'Funeral' gleefully danced around the grave in an explosion of instrumentation and ideas. The question which must inevitably act as a prefix to any assessment of their new opus is, without the catalyst of deep suffering, can Montreal’s finest repeat the trick?
The quick answer to that is no. 'Funeral' was a true one-off, the sort of beautiful alignment of time, circumstance and inspiration that cannot possibly be repeated. In any case, a cursory listen to 'Neon Bible' reveals a very different beast to its predecessor, marked by subtle yet effective changes in the seven-strong band’s sound and vision.
The skulking, pessimistic 'Black Mirror' opens the album, revealing itself to be a mightily impressive piece of (bad) mood music. It’s also an early clue to the lyrical direction adopted by much of the album - namely the dangers posed by the big, bad outside world, characterised here by Orwellian security cameras and falling bombs. While first single 'Keep The Car Running' sees a partial return to the jaunty rhythms and exuberance of 'Funeral', scraping below the perky exterior reveals fear for the onset of some Biblically-proportioned disaster, presumably the car is set for the wilderness of Alaska - with all those band-members and instruments let’s hope it’s one of those roomy station-wagons.
So far, so good but the dirge-like title track spoils this early upsurge in momentum, strategically placed as it is between two of the most up-beat tracks on the album. Presumably this is a deliberate ploy to re-assure the listener that this is not going to be an easy ride, although initially it comes across as just plain dull. A brief listen to the crazed fervour of 'Intervention' confirms the dullness of the previous track as a masterstroke. It combines all the elements of a great drama - God, death, love, money and war - complimented brilliantly by the chiming Church organ, backing choir and Win Butler’s impassioned, preachy delivery - in fact it might just as well be delivered from a pulpit as a stage.
The gallic flourishes of accordion which peppered 'Funeral' have largely been sidelined, the French-Canadian influence restricted to Regine Chassagne’s occasional forays to the front of the group, particularly in 'Black Wave/Bad Vibrations' which is interrupted halfway through by Butler’s typically grandiose imagery-led style of lyrics such as “Nothing lasts forever that’s the way it’s gotta be, there’s a great black wave in the middle of the sea for me”.
One of the most notable examples of musical flair surfaces in the exquisite tempo change and introduction of aching brass towards the climax of 'Ocean Of Noise'. Elsewhere the swooning strings show once again the arch importance of collaborator Owen Pallett of the neo-baroque Final Fantasy.
While the influence of David’s Byrne and Bowie were easily recognisable, particularly in the vocal style exhibited throughout 'Funeral', the shadow of Bruce Springsteen lurked in the progressively muscular tempo and reminiscent story-telling of 'Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels)'. This time around Butler takes this notable influence to its logical progression through 'Antichrist Television Blues', in which he apes both the vocal delivery, and mood of the 'Darkness On The Edge Of Town'-era Boss. The closing few tracks see Arcade Fire really hit their stride, with 'Windowsill' serving as the best example of the creeping paranoia which pervades much of the album. It uses the simple image of a recluse holed up inside, viewing the outside as a rising sea of malcontent, its waves lapping against his window. 'No Cars Go', reinvented from the 'Arcade Fire EP' is the penultimate song, and belies its pre-dating of the other tracks with bursts of accordion, and a driving pulse which builds to a climactic ending and would make a perfect conclusion to any other Arcade Fire album but this one. Again taking a musical and thematic u-turn, 'My Body Is A Cage' rounds off the album, its spiritual yearning again abetted by chilling Church organ. It’s a curious ending, but again shows the band grappling with their sound, their direction and their audience. Much like the rest of this brilliantly-realised album it will stand the test of repeated listens, confuse new converts and establish Arcade Fire as contenders for a stage much bigger than the darlings of the thriving Canuck indie scene.