…A great black wave in the middle of the sea…
It probably won’t end up as anyone’s favourite track from Neon Bible, but I’m pretty convinced that – with the possible exception of “Black Mirror” – “Black Wave / Bad Vibrations” is the most important song on the record. This is partly because the song prominently links the album’s two strongest visual motifs – water and darkness – but it’s mostly because of what happens at the 1:35 mark. The song begins as a new wave-influenced keyboard-driven track featuring one of Régine Chassagne’s only lead vocals on the album. Her childlike voice sings of escaping to the ocean, running away from shadows and from memories – lyrical motifs that wouldn’t have been out of place on Funeral.
And then at 1:35, the bottom of the crescendo falls out, leaving only a cold, tinny xylophone playing along. Eight notes later, we hear the sound of the world being turned on its end: a rumbling, thundering bassline buried in the mix with a funeral march of a drum beat (the song deserves to be heard on a good stereo that can make the walls shake). With a desperate voice on the verge of cracking, Win Butler struggles as he sings a new, urgent melody and a lyric that replaces hope with impending doom:
Stop now before it’s too late
Been eating in the ghetto on a 100 dollar plate
Nothing lasts forever, that’s the way it’s gotta be
There’s a great black wave in the middle of the sea
It’s a stunning turn, so sudden when one hears Neon Bible for the first time that it sounds like someone accidentally pressed the “skip track” button to another song. It’s not insignificant that one of the album’s few moments of joyful release, moments like those which turned Funeral into one of the most beloved albums of the decade, is snuffed out and replaced by darkness and dread. The Neon Bible only has one book, my friends, and it is the Book of Revelations.
…I’m living in an age that calls darkness light…
To suggest that Neon Bible isn’t exactly the “feel good album of the year” is a bit of an understatement. That a band should wish to make dark music is far from unheard of, but that the Arcade Fire should wish to follow up a beloved, rather inspirational album by confronting Armageddon itself will probably rub some the wrong way. Not that it won’t make the album less successful – in fact, early estimates show that Neon Bible is keeping steady with Reliant K and Daughtry for the top spots on next week’s Billboard charts. If by some weird twist of fate it ends up number one, it will be easily the darkest, most distressing rock album to accomplish this miraculous feat since Kid A seven years ago.
Like the way that “Black Wave / Bad Vibration” interrupts the melodies and themes of Funeral, so too does album-opener “Black Mirror” feel like a sinister twist on the band’s now-signature sound. The rhythm and chord progression echoes the band’s breakthrough track “Rebellion (Lies),” but instead of fist-pumping and exhilarating, the production is haunting, the sound of ghosts dancing in between the keys. Butler sings of waking from a nightmare and walking by the ocean, looking for his reflection but finding only the black night looking back at him. This, in a nutshell, is the theme of the album: the futile quest for identity in a time when the darkness renders us blind.
…World War III, when are you coming for me?…
The darkness that paints over every word and every note on Neon Bible is bold, uncompromising and absolutely apocalyptic in its force. “Black Mirror” acts as the album’s prologue, setting up its most crucial imagery, but the album’s narrative really begins with “Keep the Car Running.” It’s the first song to present us with the stakes at hand, with a title reflecting extreme paranoia and urgency. Listening to it, I can’t shake the mental image of a lonesome, frantic man pacing through his home while outside a running car sits, waiting for the moment when the world is about to come to an end, when the only hope left is to jump in the car and drive away from the oncoming darkness as fast as one can.
This is profoundly different than Funeral, an album where the big moments were not about passively observing and waiting in fear, but about action. Who can forget “Power Out’s” passionate plea that, “The fire’s out in the heart of man / take it from your heart, put it in your hand”? Or “Wake Up’s” electricity: “With my lightning bolts a flowin’ / I can see where I am going”? There’s very little of that now. There is no light to combat the darkness on Neon Bible, and with a couple of exceptions – “No Cars Go,” “The Well and the Lighthouse” – the songs sound less like they’re trying to take on the world and more like they’re cowering in a corner trying to hide from it.
But just because Neon Bible is less empowering than its predecessor does not make it less powerful. Take a song like “Windowsill,” a rant against our materialistic times wrapped around a deep fear of the rising sea consuming it all in one fell swoop. Butler perfectly evokes the sound of that man alone in his home, a broken shell pacing back and forth. As I mentioned earlier, water as a visual motif appears time and time again throughout Neon Bible and claims the title of “Ocean of Noise,” the album’s saddest and most beautiful ballad. A heartbreaking lament of disconnection, the song blames oceans of noise and violence – metaphors for chaos – for separating its characters from one another. Funeral barely mentioned water or oceans, but the sea flows over almost every note on Neon Bible, threatening to engulf the world with its darkened might.
…Hear the soldier groan, “We’ll go at it alone”…
While Neon Bible and its title track share a name with John Kennedy Toole’s first novel, the band has never confirmed that it’s a direct reference to the book, nor do we need to consider it as such. The image of a bright-but-vacant neon-lit bible survives well enough on its own, contrasting with the darkness surrounding the rest of the album: “In the city it’s the only light” and “In the future I will read at night.” The problem is that the neon bible is completely unable to tell the difference between hope and pain, and its emptiness provides no answers and no salvation.
The characters on Neon Bible repeatedly try and reach out to faith and hope to find their bearings and time and time again come up empty. “Intervention,” the album’s first use of a monstrous, colossal church organ that sounds like it’s eating silence with its might, could very well be mistaken for a hymn if you don’t pay attention to the words. But the words sing of faith broken into shards, of Christ’s soldier ending up having to fight the world entirely on their own. “The Well and the Lighthouse” is something of a dark fairy tale, its protagonist following a faint voice and the sight of silver down into the depths of a well, “into the water black /my prison cell.” The voice cries out to him as he awaits his untimely end: “You always fall for what you desire or what you fear.”
And then there’s “(Antichrist Television Blues),” the album’s most lyrically dense song, known as “Building Downtown” in places where putting “antichrist” on the album sleeve isn’t kosher. A devoted father prays to the Lord to make his daughter a singing star to honour His greatness and to give the world the identity lacking in these darkened times: “I wanna hold a mirror up to the world,” Butler sings, “So that they can see themselves inside my little girl.” But when quests for identity turn to madness – the character of “(Antichrist Television Blues)” is surely mad in his heavenly obsession – what hope is there for true salvation?
…Between the click of the light and the start of the dream…
While many reviewers have pointed to the instrumentation as the highlight of Neon Bible – the strings, the organ, etc. – to me, Win Butler is the album’s star and its soul. I hate to pull out the Radiohead comparisons this early in the band’s career, but Butler’s transformation is akin to that of Thom Yorke’s on OK Computer. Yorke was clearly a technically-stunning vocalist before that, but he tended to sing the same way all the time; on OK Computer, he learned to give every song its own voice, to give each and every character a soul all to themselves through inflection, pace and tone. That’s what Butler does on Neon Bible, driving home the isolation, dread and darkness of each and every character.
But where does that leave poor Régine Chassagne, whose childlike voice doesn’t sell apocalypse quite so well? Putting aside her brief appearance as the well’s temptress in “The Well and the Lighthouse,” her main role as a vocalist on Neon Bible is to provide reprieve from Butler’s impressive cavalcade of tortured characters and allow for the slim possibility of escape from their misery.
Chassagne’s first such attempt in “Black Wave / Bad Vibrations” is forcefully interrupted by Butler’s oncoming apocalypse, but she gets her second chance with “No Cars Go,” singing almost every line in unison with Butler. It’s an exhilarating rush of a song, finally getting the strings, horns and velocity that it always deserved (the song was on the band’s first EP four years ago, but has since been a staple of the band’s live show). More importantly, lyrically and musically it sounds like the most energetic and inspirational moments on Funeral, a fact pointed out by several of the album’s reviewers.
But although its role on the album as one last rush of possibility is important, there’s no way that “No Cars Go” could ever be the final word in the Neon Bible – it even hints as such by suggesting that its utopia lives only “between the click of the light and the start of the dream” and with Butler’s final admission that he really has no clue where he is leading his army of followers. No, like all good books the Neon Bible does not end at its climax, but provides us with a dénouement to put everything in perspective.
…Though the fear keeps me moving, still my heart beats so slow…
“My Body is a Cage” is the culmination of the apocalyptic vision first hinted at in “Black Mirror.” The album’s opening track foretells of darkness and of a coming time when “all words will lose their meaning”; we end the album in “a time that calls darkness light” and where “my language is dead.” Throughout the album’s 45 minutes, Win Butler has sang in the voices of characters who reach out to the world to find identity and salvation and discover only blackness; of characters who cower in fear of impending doom and destruction; of characters who attempt escape and are unable to outrun the inevitable.
So with the church organ returning for one last funeral march, Butler sings a final plea, not for the world to change or for escape from its damnation, but a prayer to find peace within one’s self: “My body is a cage / that keeps me from dancing with the one I love / but my mind holds the key.” As self-consciously gothic as anything the band has ever done, the organ and choir mesh into one in a massive tour-de-force of sound, building and building as Butler brokenly reaches to the top of his register and sings over and over, “set my spirit free.”
Those final pleas go unanswered as the final chord cuts off suddenly, leaving the listener alone in the silence, the night creeping around them and the ocean at the door.