Arcade Fire's 'Bible': A Searing Success

By Allison Stewart
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 11, 2007

Long beloved by bloggers, rock snobs and Canadians, the Montreal-based behemoth Arcade Fire is the last band anyone would expect to take a run at mainstream success. Its sophomore full-length release arrives on a blast hose of hype, all of it pretty much true: "Neon Bible" is a near masterwork, a tumultuous and overripe mixture of Americana, '80s indie rock, pipe organs, end-times agita, broken French and unbending self-regard.

Unlike its predecessor, 2004's equally superb "Funeral," "Neon Bible" mystifies, frustrates and dazzles in equal helpings. A new wave album with a folk-rock heart -- or maybe it's the other way around -- "Bible" teases out its simple themes (the deadening drumbeat of war, the corrupting influence of consumerism and organized religion) to Technicolor size, helped along by a panoply of horns, choirs and what one begins to suspect are gratuitously exotic instruments: Surely even Donovan never approached a hurdy-gurdy with this much earnestness.

Frontpersons Win Butler and wife Regine Chassagne have little interest in conventional niceties such as choruses or hooks. Songs begin with spare washes of organ or bass before shifting into tarted-out symphonies. The sheer rococo splendor of the arrangements, the sheer mass of the backing players (at least five band members in addition to Butler and Chassagne, and a mammoth supporting cast) sometimes stretches these songs to the point of absurdity.

The chugging, relentless opening track, "Black Mirror," rails against the war, and maybe the band's burgeoning fame as well ("You can't watch your own image / And also look yourself in the eye"); "Ocean of Noise" revs up with what sounds like actual ocean noises (Arcade Fire is nothing if not literal) and evolves into a conventional shoe-gazing country track before ending in a wash of backing vocals and strings; "Windowsill" is an all-purpose indictment ("Don't want it faster / I don't want it free / I don't wanna live in America no more") that feels dated: Its flogging of MTV and its central president-as-daddy-figure conceit are both Reagan-era relics.

The sprawling, masterly "(Antichrist Television Blues)" somehow conflates 9/11, God, television and Joe Simpson -- the father of Ashlee and Jessica -- into a tale of a struggling father who sees his talented daughter as a ticket out of downtown Manhattan, where planes might crash at any minute. Like almost every track here, it sounds more jubilant than it is. Its talkiness and desperation suggest "Born to Run"-era Springsteen, though its ability to summon up vast reserves of uniquely American dread recalls Wilco's more generous-minded "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" even more.

Butler is a transplanted Texan with a quavery, '80s Brit-rock voice that makes him sound constantly surprised -- and disappointed. He's alternately cast as a perky weirdo and a preachy scold, and is frequently buried under the disc's relentless wall of sound. For Arcade Fire, clamor is a bulwark against intimacy, intended not to envelop but to crush, to cheer and to show off.

"Neon Bible" may be the most ostentatiously humble record ever, but the more you listen, the better it sounds and the more manageable it seems. This is contemporary indie pop at its close-to-finest, applied with a heavy heart and a heavy hand.

DOWNLOAD THESE: "Keep the Car Running," "(Antichrist Television Blues)," "Windowsill," "No Cars Go"

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