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Born To Ruin: Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible Reviewed

Arcade Fire, Neon Bible


The omens aren’t good. Towers of Babel falling. Blood and fire in Babylon. The tide continually rising. After decades of inertia, history has suddenly remembered us. And they appeared before we even realised we needed them, the finest band of a new troubled century, the soundtrack to new Rome going down in flames and taking the world with it. For many Funeral was more than just another album, it was an affirmative roar in the face of death, a dark yet uplifting distillation of the times. The good news is they still have it.

If Funeral was the sound of a band kicking the doors of alternative music open, the follow-up would be the sound of them ransacking whatever was inside. Early reports from the studio hinted at military choirs, a Hungarian Orchestra, contributors from Wolf Parade, Final Fantasy, Calexico.

Neon Bible is unashamedly epic and therein lies the real appeal of Arcade Fire. It’s not just the beauty of their music rather it’s the intensity, the fearless passions of the band, pointing a way out of the numbness, cowardice and post-modern gimmickry all too prevalent in modern music. Cause we’re tired mama, tired and full of dust and the time has come for sincerity. When the power’s out in the heart of man, someone must have the nerve to start it up again.

The opener “Black Mirror” startles, its Hammer Horror sound effects and haunted piano adding more than a hint of the gothic to proceedings, the chorus igniting like the dawn in some forgotten silent vampire film. “Mirror mirror on the wall, show me where them bombs will fall,” Win sings. This is not then, this is now it says. And that is a terrifying thing.

By contrast “Keep the Car Running” is perhaps the most conventional track they’ve ever released, with its chiming mandolin over a pounding Motor City rhythm section. But there’s darkness on the edge of town and not just in the “If some night I don’t come home” sentiments of the lyrics. The Springsteen influence, evident in the “C’mon hide your lovers/ underneath the covers” mumble of the mighty “Rebellion (Lies)”, bears fruit here with Win’s drawl and that E-Street beat. In fairness they’ve used it for the forces of good (unlike say The Killers who invoke The Boss in Satan’s service) focusing on the heartfelt convictions, the same desire for escape from the everyday destructions and redemptions of small town life.

There follows the short brooding chamber music of the title track with its whispered mantra threatening to explode at any second. With the next song it does. “Intervention” is the moment you cast all lingering doubts aside and realise your expectations have somehow been fulfilled, when you surrender to the euphoric Jesus-fucking-Christness of the band. It’s a truly sublime combination of Victoriana and the celestial, building and building through swathes of steampunk church organ and strings into a series of explosive, heartbreakingly beautiful climaxes: “Working for the church while your life falls apart/ singing Hallelujah with the fear in your heart.”

As the album progresses the band move onto relatively uncharted territory; the sinister enchantment of “Black Wave/Bad Vibrations” recalling, at closest, the darker moments of Kate Bush, the stunning “The Well and The Lighthouse” The Cure at their most strident. “Ocean of Noise” is a fragile lost highway of a track with its ghostly Daniel Lanois-esque shimmer bursting into a spectral waltz and ending with a skull-faced Mariachi band in full celebration of Dia de los Muertos.

The only reservation on the album, and it’s a slight one, comes with “Antichrist Television Blues” where the influence of Springsteen becomes top-heavy. At times it is Springsteen, the voice indistinguishable, the music a close relative of the chilling rockabilly of Nebraska’s “Johnny 99.” All that is missing is a woman named Mary Lou and someone coming back disillusioned from Vietnam. Somehow though, even here, they make it their own, creating a sort of “Born To Ruin.” Crucially you sense a real compassion and humanity at their core that, like Springsteen, is an antidote to any hints of depression. If they are cynics they are cynics rapturously in love with life.

The final track “My Body is a Cage” is fittingly the finest, a spiritual that demonstrates a new soulful addition to their sound, aided by the impossible rising grandeur of the orchestration, recalling the glory days before Spector hit meltdown.

“It’s a hollow play/ but they’ll clap anyway,” Win sings but don’t believe him. This is more than rock’n’roll. It’s Mozart’s Requiem, Bowie by the wall, Doctor Faustus shrieking for an extra day. They’re waltzing with the bones of dead bohemians. They’re rejoicing as the sky falls in. They’re urging us on full steam ahead for the abyss.

darran-3am.jpg Darran Anderson is an Irish writer based in Edinburgh. He is poet-in-residence of Dogmatika, editor of Laika Poetry review and has completed his first collection of verse entitled Tesla’s Ghost. He is currently working on a novel entitled Junk.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, March 6th, 2007.