Arcade Fire's 'Neon Bible' Turns 10: How Springsteen & Dubya Influenced Their Second Album
Back in the mid-‘00s, when guitars were the indie weapon of choice, Arcade Fire blazed onto the scene with many a stringed thing. There were violins, violas, and cellos -- plus accordions, keyboards, xylophones, and bracing team vocals led by frontman Win Butler, a 6'4" man who seemed like something out of a folk tale.
On their 2004 debut Funeral, the Montreal sextet did orchestral post-punk like a pack of itinerant thespians or old-world circus performers. Inspired by a series of deaths in the group members’ families, the album has a weirdly euphoric storybook vibe you just couldn’t get from The Killers, Death Cab for Cutie, or even The Decemberists.
For the follow-up, Arcade Fire could’ve kept up the theatrical uplift and perhaps attempted something even grander. But with Neon Bible -- released 10 years ago today, on March 6, 2007 -- the band found a way to grow its sound while going harder and more direct. Neon Bible is a proper rock n’ roll album marked by dark, clattering dread. If Funeral was a breath of fresh air, these 11 songs filled the lungs with smoke from the burning ruins of Western civilization. And the fumes were intoxicating.
Neon Bible debuted at No. 2 on the Hot 100, and while critics again fawned, there wasn’t quite the same enthusiasm there had been for Funeral. In a Pitchfork review scored 8.4 (Funeral got 9.7), Stephen M. Deusner noted Butler’s tendency to “overstate and sensationalize.” David Fricke of Rolling Stone gave 3.5 stars to what he called a “huge sound that only sparkles on the edges.” The songs are fairly blunt in their criticism of war, religion, television, consumerism, and the intersections between those things, and yet it’s that directness -- lyrically and musically -- that makes Neon Bible a major step forward for the band.
In 2006, when Arcade Fire was recording Neon Bible in a former Montreal church they’d turned into a studio, George W. Bush was midway through his second term, and U.S. forces were still waging his unwinnable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Evangelicals were still the hot voter bloc. Reality TV accounted for 68.6 percent of primetime viewing. It was easy to feel uneasy, and that’s the mood of “Black Mirror,” which opens Neon Bible on a choppy, ominous note. In the second verse, Butler sings of making eye contact with yourself on a security camera -- a chilling image that gets at the privacy concerns and paradoxical feelings of alienation central to 21st century living.
At the time, Butler talked a lot about the influence of classic Americana artists like Bruce Springsteen, and it’s fitting that two of the best songs on Neon Bible deal with automobiles. Except that Arcade Fire don’t use cars as symbols of freedom and escape like the Boss does. On “Keep the Car Running,” Butler’s protagonist plans to hit the highway only when the bad guys (government stooges or some other boogeymen) finally come for him. It sounds more like John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band’s blatantly Springsteen-aping 1984 hit “On the Dark Side” than it does an actual Bruce song, and that copy-of-a-copy vibe fits nicely with the themes of the album.
And then there’s “No Cars Go,” a rousing eco-fantasy about a world without carbon-belching people-movers. It’s unclear whether Butler is thinking post-apocalyptic, like Arcade Fire fan David Byrne on Talking Heads’ “Nothing But Flowers,” or simply imagining some crunchy sustainable-living commune. Either way, the band drives the song home like it’s an attainable dream.
When Springsteen linked up with Arcade Fire during a 2007 concert in Ottawa, he went for maximum impact and opted for “Keep the Car Running.” If they’d hunkered down for a longer joint show, though, he might have tried “Ocean of Noise,” a desperate ballad ripe for some of his faux-Roy Orbison overexertion. And then there’s “The Well and the Lighthouse,” maybe the most Springsteenian song on Neon Bible. It’s a rocking little parable about guy who literally finds himself in a pit of despair, then wins redemption in the form of a high-stress job keeping ships from wrecking on the beach. Again, you could imagine Springsteen channeling Orbison on the 6/8 finale.
Springsteen himself wrote about senseless warfare (“Last to Die,” “Gypsy Biker”), distorted reality (“Magic”), and the dehumanizing effects of mass media (“Radio Nowhere”) on his 2007 album Magic, the last truly great thing he’s done. Although Bruce ultimately paints a sunnier picture than Arcade Fire on Neon Bible, both albums capture life in the waning days of Dubya.
And just in time for their 10th anniversaries, Trump’s war on truth has made both albums -- Neon Bible especially -- feel relevant once again. Fortunately, Arcade Fire have moved past the gloom. “I Give You Power,” their new song with Mavis Staples, is a funk-soul hand grenade lobbed at the new president on the eve of his inauguration. It holds a mirror to mankind and reflects plenty of light.