Two dark autumns ago, the Arcade Fire made me believe, all over again, in the all-encompassing power of rock and roll. Those were depressingly political times, and the un-political nature of the record offered me an escape. “Funeral” was a triumphant album about loss and renewal, about picking up the pieces in a cold, wintry world; it made me feel that I wasn’t the only one who was strung out and sad and suddenly and pathetically sober. But though it attempts a similarly bombastic sound, “Neon Bible” – the Arcade Fire’s long-awaited follow-up – has none of “Funeral’s” guarded optimism. And bombast without uplift is a recipe for disaster.
“Neon Bible” certainly sounds like the Arcade Fire: the thudding 4/4 beat, the grand orchestral moments, Win Butler’s cracking vocals. Yet the transcendent nostalgia of “Funeral” is entirely gone, replaced by a meandering, dystopic, and deeply flawed meditation on the imminent collapse of the Western world.
In much of the album, the orchestration seems forced, as the Arcade Fire are intent on preserving “Funeral’s” sound, though not its spirit. “Black Mirror,” the poorly placed first track, is marred by an off-kilter violin that immediately throws off the bass-driven melody. “Antichrist Television Blues” could have been a terrific, stripped-down, Springsteen-type rocker. Instead, it insists on being something more, and a wailing group chorus and string section almost ruin it entirely.
When I get bored with an album, I sometimes play Guess the Next Lyric with myself. I’ve never been able to predict an Arcade Fire lyric – never wanted to, really – until I put on “Neon Bible.” The Arcade Fire are surprisingly and grotesquely into rhyming, and the results are tired and predictable, with none of the exuberance of “Funeral” (“sometimes we remember bedrooms / in our parents’ bedrooms / the bedrooms of our friends” – does it get better than that?). With lyrics like “World War III / when are you coming for me,” the band is left grasping at straws. Nothing, however, quite beats the apocalyptic banality of “Black Mirror”: “Mirror mirror on the wall / show me where the bombs will fall.” Are they kidding? Worse, are they serious?
With “The Well and the Lighthouse” and “Intervention,” we see how this album might have turned out. “The Well and the Lighthouse” is vintage Arcade Fire; Reginne Chassagne’s eerie harmonies build up the song until a familiar violin slows it down, as Win Butler segues into a heartbreaking mantra: “The lions and the lambs ain’t sleeping yet.”
On “Intervention,” the album’s first single, the initial organ theme is swelling and triumphant; when the band kicks in around minute two, it becomes anthemic. Like many of “Funeral’s” best songs, “Intervention” tells something of a story: a man in service to the Church loses track of the things that once meant most to him and allows his family to die. This is a song of grandiose promise that fully warrants its grandiose orchestration.
Yet “Neon Bible” consistently falls short. Unlike “Funeral” – whose exuberant mix of piano, organ, and violin remains one of the unique rock and roll sounds of the decade – much of “Neon Bible” is plainly derivative. With its two-word choral repetition and descending bass-line, the title track sounds (and reads) like a low-fi, boring version of The Notwist’s “Neon Golden.” “Ocean of Noise” opens like a mediocre Pixies track, employing faux-haunting guitar fills to little effect. On “Keep the Car Running,” it wouldn’t be surprising to find out that The Edge has secretly taken up the mandolin at an Arcade Fire charity benefit. And on the lovely “No Cars Go,” the Arcade Fire steal from an all too familiar source: themselves.
“No Cars Go” – originally released on their self-titled EP – is the Arcade Fire at their best: childish, winsome, and above all, moving. It’s a story of youthful escape: “We know a place where no planes go / we know a place where no ships go / hey! No cars go.” Listening to the song repackaged only compounds “Neon Bible’s” disappointment, as this playful and poignant whimsy doesn’t mesh with the tone of the rest of the album; it seems like a last-ditch Hail Mary to save an otherwise weak effort. We can’t help but think: this might have been an album filled with songs like “No Cars Go.” Instead we are left with opaque and unfulfilled reflections on the apocalyptic nature of American imperialism.
“Neon Bible’s” shortcomings are not surprising – it’s very difficult to make a successful political record. By their very nature, the best political albums tend to be anti-political; they make personal statements in the wake of overwhelming social alienation. I know I live in an increasingly frightening and dystopic world. I listen to music to escape from that world. And by trying to say too much, “Neon Bible” says nothing to me about my life.