Review: Neon Bible, Arcade Fire

Arcade Fire's Neon Bible, released on Monday, has received the sort of reception one supposes that Jesus might get, should he wander into The White House - or rather, it exposes precisely why such a reception might be more in line with that meted out to the Messiah in Dostoevsky's fable of the Grand Inquisitor.

In short, this is a critically-lauded album of eleven songs by the world's most famous Canadian band (with a Texan frontman) that, based on a novel about false religion by an American suicide, critiques the current age from the position of the pulpit (paradoxically, recorded in Quebecois and Hungarian churches) while at the same time questioning the rock on which America's foreign and home policies lie. The Killers must be gutted that The New York Times has accused them of forging a false-voiced sound, whereas Arcade Fire has married Springsteen and The Talking Heads effortlessly, and in exuberant, original stride.

The New York Times has compared them to Cirque du Soleil fused with The Clash, which is a nice idea, but fails utterly to take into account the rich local history of Montreal music of the last 20 or so years. Arcade Fire have not (unlike Topsy) just popped out of nowhere, but instead draw on the tradition of cabaret music shows in the city, which I (along with Jake Brown and others) used to host in the 90s, featuring artists like Martha and Rufus Wainwright and The Kingpins. Further, this tradition of spectacle and zany intense live shows with many costume changes mainly derives from the influence of legendary Montreal band Me, Mom and Morgentaler (pictured). It is tedious to see this current act of rampant hagiography occur without due attention being paid to the sons of the desert who came before.

Arcade Fire have few enemies, many friends, from David Bowie to The Guardian and Observer and Q and Entertainment Weekly - all who mention epic sound and sonic and moral greatness. Neon Bible is a bit like The Waste Land - a cultural product delivered to the consumer with the tag of masterpiece already on its toe. Curiously, it is not the first album to be recorded in both Montreal and Budapest, to explore sweeping soundscapes, and discuss issues of conspiracy, the Apocalypse and 9/11. That was Swifty Lazarus, with The Envelope, Please. It would be nice to think Arcade Fire know that, but probably not.

I think this is a very, very good album, with stunning songs, and an alert, provocative and refreshing tone that is marvellous. Great? I don't actually think it betters Funeral, whose childlike brilliance is still entirely unique. Whereas Neon Bible reminds one of those who came before - from Bowie to Black (Frank) to Byrne to The B-52s. I also find the lyrical and thematic content slightly ham-fisted. The concept that America's Neo-Con alliance with the Fundamentalist Christian wing of the Republican party led to an illegal war in Iraq is hardly new. Nor is it, on its own, profound. Worse is the suggestion that faith (the church) necessarily leads to such political criminality. It sometimes clearly does, but the priests and church members who allowed the band to record in their acoustically-friendly chambers no doubt think more subtly about the church-state question. Given that many of the leading anti-war figures since Vietnam have been church-affiliated is worth bearing in mind.

Father Berrigan comes to mind. And Dietrich Bonhoeffer's resistance to Hitler (in which he died at the hands of the Nazis, willingly going to his death by returning to Germany) is certainly a more potent statement of commitment than making an album. I only go this far, because the critics are heralding this as a major work, of sound and substance. I think the sound is sound, the substance less so, perhaps built on sand.

Still, "Windowsill" and "No Cars Go" are great songs, and powerful as political statements. The lines: "Don't wanna fight in a holy war/ Don't want the salesmen knocking at my door/ I don't wanna live in America no more" sure beats The Killers' "he doesn't look a thing like Jesus" for a statement of defiance that will go down on Win Butler's permanent record. That sort of shining posterity is admirable, as indie pop's been bland since 2001, issuing few such transforming rebel yells, and queer-shouldered yawps. Bravo.

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