Once in a while, you hear an album so powerful, so poetic, and so daring that you are left wide-eyed yet fully aware that you have just experienced true beauty and transcendence. It has been fifteen years since its release, and I’m still giddy about Neon Bible, Arcade Fire’s triumphant second album. That’s not to imply that the album is exuberant and lighthearted. Quite the opposite, actually. Neon Bible was born out of fear and that fear turned to anger. Anger that is directed towards America and the Church. Fortunately, Neon Bible recognizes that these things are not the enemy in and of themselves.
Lead singer/front man, Win Butler stated the album’s fundamental theme is “this idea that Christianity and consumerism are completely compatible, which I think is the great insanity of our times.” Song after song decries how religion, Christianity or other, has become ideologically entangled with our materialistic society. Neon Bible tells us that something bad is happening, but something much worse is coming.
“Mirror, mirror on the wall, show me where them bombs will fall…“
The band takes no time wading into this thematically dark material. “Black Mirror” opens Neon Bible on a somber, somewhat anxious note, leaving no doubt that turbulent waters are ahead. While their debut release was concerned with personal stories of death, Neon Bible is concerned with the death of our culture. “Mirror, Mirror on the wall, / Show me where them bombs will fall.” There is a sense of dread about the future. Musically, “Black Mirror” is gloomy; rhythmically pounding its message of despair. The vocals are soft and subdued, until Butler can’t help himself anymore. The string section comes in and really closes the song with a haunting quality.
“Keep the Car Running” changes things up musically, but the lyrics are as pessimistic as before. “Men are coming to take me away. / I don’t know why, but I know I can’t stay.” Butler sings about “a weight that’s pressing down,” and “a fear I keep so deep.” The music might sound upbeat, but don’t let that fool you. There is a “black wave” coming, we just don’t know when. Perhaps the most telling line in “Keep the Car Running” comes in the second verse, Butler seems unable to verbalize the panic that has crept in, the band joins him to unleash a primal yell of “Aaah aaaaaaah, aaaah aaaaaaah.” It’s powerful and quite effective.
The title track is the shortest on the album, clocking in at only 2:16, but possibly one of the most damning of all their accusations. Allusions to relativism and idolatry are tucked away in the corners of the song. “It was wrong, but you said it was right” speaks to our culture’s avoidance of absolutes. The golden calf shows how far much of American Christianity has wandered off our true path. The only response for this is directed heavenward, “Oh God! I had to laugh.”
If “Neon Bible” is the gentle whisper reminding us of where we’ve gone wrong, “Intervention” is the inevitable slap in the face that follows when we do not heed the warning. Warfare imagery abounds with the repetitive mention of soldiers, dying, fighting, and broken bones. On first listen, it could appear that they are blaming the Church for the downfall of our culture, but more careful study of the song shows that to be an incomplete reading. Yes, they are angry with the Church’s involvement in the various ills that have plagued our world. But their anger is directed toward what the church has allowed, through its unholy marriage with culture.
Musically, “Intervention” is one of the high points on Neon Bible. The vocals are passionate and the use of the church organ throughout the song is inspired, considering they refer to the Church over and over. They have the ability to put so much into their songs, they almost feel too full; as if they could spiral out of control at any second. Yet, they don’t. Blending guitars, bass, drums, percussion, organ, strings, and vocals almost effortlessly, they create a lush, musical landscape. Regine Chassagne lends her angelic voice to this song with fantastic results. Honestly, any time she sings, the songs get better.
“The sound is not asleep, it’s moving under my feet.“
Transitioning from “Intervention”, “Black Wave / Bad Vibrations” keep the album moving. This is really two connected yet melodically distinct parts of one song. The first part sounds happy, with Chassagne singing and some trippy keyboard. The way the song segue ways into the second half is just amazing. The music quickly fades out as the keyboards repeat an eerie tune. The band joins in with a pulsating rhythm that just sets you on edge. The song ends with the refrain “The sound is not asleep, / It’s moving under my feet“, which doesn’t relieve the built-up tension at all. The accompanying vocals that close out the track are evocative and perfectly enhance the paranoid mood.
The sense of distrust and fear continues with “Ocean of Noise”. This time all that fear and distrust is directed inward. “You’ve got your reasons / And me, I’ve got mine/ But all the reasons I gave / Were just lies to buy myself some time.” The honest assessment, that evil can be found inside our hearts, is a courageous one. The song ends on a more positive note, with horns, strings, and piano beautifully complimenting each other. When Butler sings “I’m gonna work it out / ‘Cause time won’t work it out for you”, you might think you are supposed to be hopeful, but based on what he has revealed about his own heart, you’re left with some doubt.
“The Well and the Lighthouse” is the second of the album’s musical medleys that combine two songs into one powerful result. The music is fast and exciting in the first half while the second half slows things down and repeats one basic thought: “Resurrected / Living in a lighthouse / If you leave / Them ships are gonna wreck. / Resurrected / Living in a lighthouse. / the lions and the lambs ain’t sleeping yet.” There is a promise of something better to come, most likely in eternity, but we still have responsibilities here and now. It is the first real glimmer of hope in Neon Bible, and one that will be picked up again.
“Antichrist Television Blues” sounds like Bruce Springsteen and Lyle Lovett’s illegitimate child. It’s an upbeat song with little piano flourishes amidst the acoustic guitars and up-tempo drums. The song is about a self-proclaimed Christian man who wants the world to see God’s power and love by making his daughter a musical star. In reality, it’s a song about a self-centered father who uses a false sense of piety and holiness to coerce his young daughter into a life she simply does not want. The song comes out of left field lyrically, but it really does fit right into the narrative that they are building.
“Windowsill” rejects everything about American culture the band feels is damaging. In an interview with The Chicago Tribune, Win states:
“I wrote that song after our first headlining tour of the States,” he says after the show. “It was the first time in my life that I felt like I was visiting my own country as some sort of outsider. I had lived in Montreal for a few years at that point, but I didn’t realize that I had really made it my home until that trip.
In theology there is this idea that it is easier to say what God isn’t than what God is, and in a way that song is my trying to say everything about my country that is not what makes it great or beautiful. In a way it makes what is great and beautiful and worth fighting to preserve more clear.”Win Butler – Chicago Tribune
The emphasis is squarely on what is wrong with America, as opposed to the too-often heard knee-jerk reaction, “America is evil.” The song starts with acoustic guitar and Win singing, with Chassagne’s whispering vocals coloring around the edges. As usual, strings, horns, and anything else they can throw into the mix joins in as the song progresses. A huge chorus takes the end to a powerful conclusion. “Don’t wanna see it at my windowsill!” becomes an almost spiritual chant in defiance of the evil that has permeated our lives.
“Between the click of the light and the start of the dream.“
I previously spilled out a thousand words on the virtues and theological beauty of “No Cars Go” so I won’t rehash it. Suffice it to say, the song is breathtaking, beautiful, and everything that is right and true about music and art. You can read my full thoughts on the song here. “No Cars Go” is the hopeful expectation that there is, in fact, something better beyond the walls of this world. It’s a wondrous glimpse into the eternity that has been set in our hearts from the very foundations of creation and it’s a welcome moment of unbridled joy in an otherwise dark and difficult album.
I would have been absolutely thrilled to have ended Neon Bible on that high note, but they don’t want the listener to walk away forgetting the darkness they have exposed. The final song, “My Body is a Cage” has whispers of Romans 7:23-24 where Paul informs us that our flesh is corruptible and wrecked by sin. The mood is created with just organ, some percussion, and Win’s somber singing. As the song progresses, the band adds layer upon layer of instrumentation. Butler reiterates that we live in “an age that calls darkness light”. The song ends with the refrain “Set my spirit free / Set my body free” reinforcing the theological absolute that we cannot be free from this corruptible world by our own strength.
Final Thoughts on Neon Bible.
Neon Bible is easily one of the best albums I have ever heard. It is lyrically powerful and musically ambitious. As I’ve said before, Arcade Fire stuffs their songs so full, that it can be overwhelming at times, but it is always worth it. Fifteen years have done nothing to lessen the impact of this demanding and triumphant album. In fact, the album feels more important today than it did the day it was released. And while the band is in no way a “Christian” band, nor do they claim to be followers of Christ, Neon Bible is filled with Biblical truth for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.
DISCLAIMER: It has recently been revealed that lead singer and songwriter, Win Butler, has been accused of sexual abuse/assault/misconduct, allegations he completely denies. We want to be clear that this review of Neon Bible is not an endorsement of the personal lives of Arcade Fire. All art is created by broken and fallen people. It is up to us to sift through the offerings and hold on to what is good and true.
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