By Austin Brown
When an album’s anniversary comes up, it’s easy to look back and think, “How did this fit into the context of the band’s previous work?” But with the Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible, the view from 2017 is almost more intriguing. No matter what one thought of 2013’s dance-punk comedown Reflektor, it’s hard to confidently say that the crown princes of indie are still in the dominant place they inhabited in the years following 2010’s Album Of The Year Grammy-winning The Suburbs.
This is at least partly because of the hype and subsequent tepidity that accompanied 2013’s Reflektor, but also more generally because of the movements in music that have happened since, relegating indie from its former status as “the future of rock” to another in a long list of fragmented genres. Rock music might be as good as ever, with acts in the underground continuing to use guitars in interesting, exciting ways, but they’re staunchly marginal, with none of the cultural explosiveness that surrounded the indie craze of the 2000s.
Considering this, it’s useful, then, to see how the Arcade Fire in particular went from one indie band among many to a band that galvanized what seemed like a nation-conquering movement at the time — and where the seeds of the subsequent failure to conquer the nation might have been sown. How did the band that was meant to save rock ‘n’ roll fail, and what did we miss by pinning that on them?
Without a doubt, Neon Bible is the genesis of this narrative — or at least the band’s participation in it. Funeral, the band’s debut, established Arcade Fire an audience, drew the eye of the indie press, and built them into what Time called “Canada’s Most Intriguing Rock Band” in 2005, but to many they could still be easily pigeonholed as a buzz band. You know the drill: hyped first album, disappointing second album, subsequent slide into obscurity punctuated by weird alterna-rock tabloid headline. So Neon Bible took that narrative and engaged with it — not head-on, in the way that Vampire Weekend did with their self-consciously globetrotting Contra, but with a steadfast commitment to going broader: in sound, in themes, and in their public image.
The result, musically, was a chunkier, dirge-ier Arcade Fire, with, as Stephen M. Deusner noted in Pitchfork, catharsis replaced by “spring-loaded tension and measured release.” The recording style necessitated by the abandoned church used by the band as a studio makes melodies and rhythms bleed and echo abound, a choice decried by some as a failing of the recording but more likely a conscious aesthetic decision — a muddy album for muddy times.
The turning outward comes with a degree of self-consciousness, maybe most noticeable in the band’s performance of “Intervention” on SNL in 2007, at the end of which Win Butler decided to smash his guitar, Pete Townshend-style. Later, in an interview with The A.V. Club, he explained his reasoning, saying “it was kind of in the moment, but it kind of fit with the song, too.” The Arcade Fire are too smart to fall into the traps of a sophomore slump — but their self-consciousness about commodification never quite turns inward, to examine the privileges of their musical preoccupations with nostalgia, melodrama, or even optimism. To both their benefit and detriment, they consistently embody a commitment to the ideals (and purity) of the 21st century Big Problems rock band, one disillusioned with the potential of the counterpublic economies of ’80s post-punk and alternative rock but still adherent to that era’s ethics and skepticism toward mass mediation.
Of course this would result in impersonality, a distance from the subject matter that can’t be played off with the same dreaminess that Funeral’s moments of respite made possible. The most political song on Funeral by default was “Haiti,” Régine Chassagne’s paean to her Caribbean homeland, which her parents fled during the brutalities of the Duvalier reign. It served as a bridge from the vagaries of Win Butler’s lyrics into more specific cultural territory, one that most indie bands avoid, either out of fear or respect. On Bible, on the other hand, Butler opts (unfortunately, without the help of Chassagne, who’s limited to background vocals and a few verses) for abstruse poeticisms about the media, surveillance, the powers that be, religion, and, of course, “the kids.” It makes for an album that’s undeniably still resonant in our heavily politicized 2017, but it also brought in the skeptics. Who was Butler to belt these concerns on militarism and “eating in the ghetto with a hundred-dollar plate”?
But attacking Neon Bible for its impersonality misses the point. There’s an unimpeachable sense of forward momentum to the album, a martial quality in the way its rhythms go on and on. Every time I hear it, I can’t help but feel that the swirl of questions about the band’s proto-wokeness fades away. In sacrificing easy catharsis, the songs of Neon Bible reclaim something different — that is, the power of a song’s form as a gathering force. Even less-upbeat tracks like “Black Mirror” and the title track still feel accumulative and empowering in their drive.
So the unexpected emotional shifts and explosive dynamics of Funeral, great as they are at painting a nuanced portrait of an emotional and magical realist world, are here replaced by something more earned, a sense that now that the Arcade Fire know you’re listening, they’re aiming to take you with them. The most obvious example is the re-recorded “No Cars Go” (originally on their 2003 EP), ostensibly an outlier in its lapse into the voiceless chorus but here framed by a rhythmic insistence that never lets up. The pounding thump of “Rebellion (Lies)” and boom-boom-clap “Wake Up” are here souped up and set in motion in double, even triple time, and the orchestration augments rather than adorns — if you don’t believe me, check those perfectly placed flutes after the bridge.
More generally, orchestration and the baroque, always part of the Arcade Fire pitch, are suddenly recast as not just identifying but necessary for the music of Neon Bible. While their alignment with chamber music was always established via Chassagne’s classical background from her time at McGill and the potpourri of musical training from many of the band members, here they’re unified into a cohesive whole, church organ included, all aimed toward literalizing the spiritual power of a rock band to collectivize and hold, if only for a moment.
My personal favorites off of Neon Bible, though, are the Springsteen rips. I respect “Intervention” and even the sometimes-maligned “My Body Is A Cage,” but they don’t move me as much as gradually overwhelm me and demand my attention — and for little (in “Cage”‘s case) to no (in “Intervention”‘s case) thoughtful payoff or especially political revelation. You might say the same of the depth or acuity of the heartland rock-biting tracks like “Keep The Car Running,” “(Antichrist Television Blues),” and even “Windowsill,” but it doesn’t matter nearly as much — they take the church less as literal instrument and more as the primary forebear for their own — and rock’s — secular spirituality. It’s right there on record, as the Joe Simpson stand-in of “(Antichrist Television Blues)” sing-sobs, “Dear God, I’m a good Christian man,” and it’s there in “Windowsill”‘s “don’t want to fight in a holy war.” But a flip from second person to first, along with the lapses into chugging post-punk, suddenly exposes just how desperately Butler wants to connect — not just to an imagined lover, but to those who are seemingly just out of the reach of his aspirational relatability.
Let’s be clear: Arcade Fire are not Bruce Springsteen. They occupy entirely different musical traditions, they have totally different target demos, and their vocal styles completely depart from one another. Unlike David Bowie or David Byrne — some of the Arcade Fire’s other “music legend” benefactors — the musical relationship they have with Springsteen is tenuous at best. But their adoption of the Boss’ lyrical and musical register still scans as a natural extension of their sound. Heartland rock by way of Echo And The Bunnymen — why not?
It’s a tightrope walk that no doubt changes its shape depending on where you’re sitting. Where Springsteen’s working-class narratives resonated in the popular consciousness at least in part due to his ability to affect a persona filled with relatability and authenticity, the Arcade Fire’s approach — in keeping with their indie bona-fides — is more conceptual. In 2017, it’s more clear than ever: Each Arcade Fire album following Funeral has simply taken the protagonists of that first album and imagined their ideal (respectively) Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, and Talking Heads albums. What would those in the neighborhood say here? Win Butler asks, time and time again. (It probably helps that Butler’s relationship with the suburbs is similarly mediated through his upwardly mobile McGill attendance and previous time at Exeter).
But somehow, despite this, the ethos of Springsteen still manages to run through the album, vindicating even its corniest moments in the same way Springsteen vindicated his own missteps. The narrative specificity of “(Antichrist Television Blues)” could work to its detriment — the histrionics, the fact that it’s about Joe Simpson, the weird “bird in a cage” lyrical turn — but Butler’s insistence sells it, once again gathering the listener into his narrative embrace until, suddenly, you’ve caught yourself buying the whole thing. By the time the abrupt cutoff after “Oh tell me lord, am I the Antichrist” hits, the tension that’s been so easy to get swept up in is suddenly exposed. Meanwhile, just watch the video of Springsteen himself performing “Keep The Car Running” to see how effective their syncretism really could be.
And a song like “Windowsill” makes clear more than anywhere else the Arcade Fire’s preoccupations, not with aspiration toward anything, necessarily, but from a desire to get away: from the view of the media, from the penetrative gaze of the American hegemony, from the shame and repression that comes with living in a parent’s house. “I don’t want to live with my father’s debt/ You can’t forgive what you can’t forget/ I don’t wanna live in my father’s house no more,” Butler invokes in one of the album’s most striking lines. It’s a rare frame for the escapism and obscurantism so common among other indie bands. The Arcade Fire’s generosity lies in their willingness to aim for the heart and that moment of transcendence in what is, hypothetically, stadium rock, and to graft that to the explicit need to escape that has been placed on the children of the suburbs for decades now — and while they got even better at exploring it in depth on The Suburbs, it was on Neon Bible, and especially on “Windowsill,” where the stakes of that escape were made clear.
As economic mobility and the chain-breaking narrative that accompanies it seem to dissolve in the suburban limbo of middle-class white America, the music that soundtracked its high points — that is, rock music, and its characteristic liberal vision of a loss of control — has given way to a multivalence of cultural signifiers, whether it be the cynicism and performative introspection of Drake, the political investments of Kendrick Lamar or Beyoncé, the fetishized sincerity of the DIY underground, or even the neoliberal globalism of chart pop. All of these movements have their great and terrible moments, of course, regardless of their political alignments, but they all seem to occupy a deferential, discursive position to the postmodern moment. Aspiration toward universality, and the secular spirituality implied by that, is not just no longer fashionable — it’s no longer economically or politically viable.
So then, it’s no wonder that a band like the Arcade Fire — with their suburban preoccupations, dreamlike lyrical turns, and nostalgia for ideas of hope and optimism — both found their audience and fell short of becoming the “voice of a generation,” despite their clear investment in being a band both for and by the people. At its best, the Arcade Fire’s grandiosity is of a piece with their onetime political associate, President Obama — the long arc of history bending toward justice and a unified modernity. But at its most overblown, it’s a reminder of how predicated that stance is on a certain comfort and (yeah) privilege, the ability to see “both sides now” and not have to worry about the day-to-day. That’s not a new observation, of course — what Neon Bible makes clear is how often those high and low points can occur at once.
With today’s left-leaning politics keeping its eye firmly trained on the oft-underreported plight of the most marginalized in society, there’s a sudden disconnect in the role played by rock music that “asks the big questions.” In the world of indie, this can lead to things like the no doubt well-intentioned but ultimately shortsighted cultural addendums to Reflektor (sorry Win, I’m still a little salty about the weird “I went to the Caribbean and had a spiritual experience” thing). Where Butler opted previously for a public persona indebted, at least gesturally, to the American South where he spent his childhood (remember that cowboy hat?), the Graceland-isms of Reflektor suddenly abandoned this, along with the confidence and drive that seemed so natural for the band’s first three albums. “Ocean Of Noise”‘s “I’m gonna work it out” refrain, meet “Afterlife”‘s far more tentative “Can we work it out?”
Maybe Arcade Fire will never make another Neon Bible — their hope might long since have curdled into skepticism. And maybe the indie world shouldn’t even be the place to look. More marginal groups like the Drive-By Truckers have plugged away year after year at the type of songs that Arcade Fire might have made if they were (a.) Less post-collegiate and (b.) from the Deep South instead of the suburbs-by-way-of-Montreal. Even Nashville royalty like Miranda Lambert and Sturgill Simpson have recently made albums that approximate Bible’s thematic preoccupations, even if they split the difference somewhat — the former’s The Weight Of These Wings taking the placelessness and the redemptive attitude towards sin, and the latter taking the fiery pacifism and rollicking rhythms. It just might be that the best music for white, rock-leaning America is being made right in the center of its twangy heart.
But there’s just as much of an argument for the indie crowd to pick up the slack. There should be more albums like Neon Bible around — albums that are willing, against the odds, to deal with the origin stories of so many of the “creative class,” or of hipsters, or even of people who just lived in the suburbs but are concerned about the world at large. I can’t stay objective on this — I grew up in a suburb of Austin, Texas, and moved to Chicago for college. I grew and developed emotionally and musically, and my tastes broadened as my supposed empathy for others did. But my mom and dad listen to country radio, and I was raised on classic rock, and no matter how far I get from my childhood, to say that I’ve somehow broken off from that would be ridiculous. I’m also constantly worried about ending up back in my parents’ house, a closed circuit of a journey to adulthood that never quite figured itself out. And Neon Bible, sometimes indirectly and sometimes oh-so directly, speaks to that anxiety and my craving for hope that we might figure this mess out — speaking both personally and politically. Indie rock, at its best, has the chance to train one eye on the “broader culture,” wherever that might be, and to fix the other on the roots of its listeners. It’s a gateway. Let’s not close that gate.