My wife put off all of her grading this weekend and has taken over the living room with Harry Potter, so I’m listening to this record on the portable phono in our bedroom that skips every time a record gets too loud, so this listen has more struggling through quality than any of the others.
Caveat aside, Neon Bible was the first Arcade Fire album I ever heard. I heard “No Cars Go” on the local college radio station (that’s two bands I have to thank them for introducing me to…there will be many more), and I immediately knew that whoever made that song happen, I needed more of it in my life. So I purchased Neon Bible on a friend’s recommendation and a half-heard single (I had so much more faith back then), and I have never regretted it in my life.
Right off the bat, Neon Bible lets the listener know that the high stakes Funeral set are being raised. “Black Mirror” evokes a cynical “Back In The USSR,” with a sampled plane engine swooshing into a pounding piano figure, and Arcade Fire immediately takes off into a much more ambitious project than their debut. The pair of violins that sprinkled Funeral are replaced with a larger orchestra. The Farfisa they used to fill in spaces is replaced with a church organ. Samples are peppered throughout the album (like the thunderstorm that plays alongside “Ocean of Noise”). Synthesizers carry a few songs. Even the electric guitars are used to greater effect. In all honesty, the instrumentation and production on this album make Funeral look like a demo tape.
Like the White Album, they conjure in the opener, Neon Bible finds these Quebecois trying their hand at a number of different styles of songs, sometimes within the same track. The anthemic adolescent jams they filled Funeral with are still plentiful, but they’re accompanied with traditional French folk song spinoffs (the title track), bass driven ballads (“Ocean of Noise”), folk-rock singalongs (“Antichrist Television Blues”) and spaghetti Western blues (“My Body Is A Cage”). Unlike the White Album, Neon Bible never suffers for its breadth, and whereas the Beatles’ work was scattershot, the tracks on this album are still cut from the same cloth (and none of them are a labor to get through).
Musicality isn’t the only way Arcade Fire has matured, though. The forlorn teenager narrating Funeral is now a jaded adult with children of his own. His internal dialogues have grown from “what happens when I grow up and my heart dies?” to “I have grown up and my heart is dying. How can I stop it?” As someone in my early 20s throughout my entire knowledge of this album, I can pair each of the worries mentioned in the lyrics to many a sleepless night or unexpected look in the mirror (though I’m incredibly relieved that “Intervention” in no way reflects my own employment at my church).
It’s this universalism of lyrical themes, much more than channeling The Beatles or Neutral Milk Hotel or The Smiths or David Bowie, that has gathered unto Arcade Fire such a massive fan base. After all, everybody grows up, and growing up ain’t easy. But as far as capturing the terror and pain of the transition into adulthood, they certainly make it look easy.