still like Grey’s Anatomy, but I no longer want to. They’ve made a fool of me, stretching my suspension of disbelief to comic proportions—in-hospital explosions, near-death falls off an eight-foot pier (oh, the water was cold), their ability to magnify misunderstandings and small tensions into subtexts that last two seasons—but I’ve already been pulled in. Somewhere in the primetime bombast, a facile but accurate analogy came to me: Funeral : Neon Bible :: Grey’s Anatomy Season One : Grey’s Anatomy Season Two/Three. Sure, most of the characters are in place, some thinner and cuter than I remember them being, but both have gone widescreen in their telling: excessive theatricality (previously doled in smaller proportions), plenty of big-budget trimmings, and a whole lot more people watching. Oh, and the fact I still can’t put either down.
Many of Funeral’s parts are still in place on Neon Bible. Regine Chassagne and Owen Pallett’s robust string arrangements usher their songs from simple, maudlin indie roots to a cascade of largesse. Win Butler is still the pale chanteur with ratty cuffs and hot puzzles in his eyes. Their songs still move in the rhythm and cadence of expansion or implosion, but more than ever before, they strive for sheer enormity. Choosing to handle the productions on their own again, they’ve embraced the sound of sound, the odd spaces and noises that bristle a record’s edges with the feel that an album’s actually recorded in life, in time, in a room with walls and equipment and pallid Canadians.
In fact, Neon Bible works as a conscious manipulation by leaving everything straight: echoes, reverbs, and knuckles of noise. Much like the Besnard Lakes or My Morning Jacket, they use the recording process as an added being, suffusing their songs with a sound worthy of the concert hall. The firm, flat drum beat on “Neon Bible,” the gaping thrash of too many players at work on “Keep the Car Running,” the cold, billowy way “Intervention”’s pipe organ actually sounds drafted out across marble and stone, the gooseflesh crescendo on “My Body is a Cage.” So, sure, in a way, it’s what most heavily-awaited sophomore records strive to be (are you listening, Bloc Party?): big, epic, impatient in its reach for timelessness.
But the Arcade Fire seem to manage what so few working bands get on that second try. While they’ve enlarged their presence on record, they’ve also peopled their songs with themes and accusations more resonant than Funeral’s mournfulness. Violence, paranoia, the falsity of simple labor, the war-call of organized religion—a what’s what of indie turmoil after 2003. Butler and Chassagne go further, snatching phrases from pulp and beat lit instead of their own shared diaries, almost like S.E. Hinton crossed with the river-dead poesie of Bruce Springsteen in the early eighties. This wider lyrical breadth allows Neon Bible to surpass the limitations of Funeral, a concept album built of suites and documents of personal history. Here, thematic threads bind the songs, but not by repeated structures or direct narrative links. Now, The Arcade Fire offers us parables and prophecies coined in the Americana of Mustang-love.
In that vein, “Antichrist Television Blues” finds Butler in full Springsteen mode. A dry guitar strum-along and firm, galloping beat get matched to a man worried about feeding his daughter, but as you fill in the spaces, dust-heeled roots curl around the devastations of a nation at large: “I don’t wanna work in a building downtown / No I don’t wanna see when the planes hit the ground” and “You Know that I’m a God-fearing man / But I just gotta know if it’s part of your plan / To seat my daughter there by your right hand.”
Over the band’s ominous church organ and a ceremonial string arrangement, “Intervention” bends its hunger-tale into a lampooning of wars fueled by Church and not State: “Working for the Church while your life falls apart / Singin’ ‘Hallelujah’ with the fear in your heart. . .Hear the soldier groan / ‘We’ll go at it alone.’” Butler’s ability to write something so certain in its simplicity that you can miss his larger commentary without losing his song is ultimately a testament to his abilities.
And now I realize I’ve lost myself in the Arcade Fire. “I don’t want it faster / I don’t want it free.” And I haven’t even said how memorable so many of these songs are simply on their own, devoid of context: “Ocean of Noise”’s dank, fairy-child sense of atmosphere; the way “Black Mirror” opens the album to a channel’s rush of white noise before spreading out its orchestral flourishes. But, like with Grey’s Anatomy, I’ve given in again. Blow it all up, fuck co-workers and conspirators in the same day, and hollow out new spaces for prayer in abandoned corners downtown. But keep it coming.