During the finale of their five night run in Montreal in the hundred candle-lit basement of the Ukrainian Federation and an all acoustic version of “the Well and the Lighthouse”, Win Butler walked into the crowd that had followed the band down the stairs after the first encore. The song was ending, the band yelling ‘the lambs and the sheep ain’t sleeping yet’ and a camera followed him into the mass of people parting. He emerged around the other side a minute or so later with the camera in his own hands, pointing it back at the audience before turning it on himself and disappearing backwards into the crowd.
It doesn’t get more grand or dramatic than the Arcade Fire’s sophomore release, Neon Bible, in terms of the ambition of imagery and the breadth of the gestures. Mirrors and bombs, casting of stones and soldiers and the Church, a golden calf, good Christian men, lambs, the flood, a key. If the Arcade Fire are vulnerable anywhere (though they seem a pretty sudden and stern institution around here) it’s in the question, ‘can they really pull that off?’ Are they really standing up there singing “Neon Bible”, and about the big and obvious but almost embarrassing touchstones of our recent age? You know, like war, religion, the public forum and its spotlight? Who do they think they are anyway?
If you took a picture of the band with a flash during one of their recent shows, you’d see bands of light where electrical tape had until then decorated their costuming more or less benignly. The colours and shapes were not accidentally analogous to the giant fluorescent neon bible that has hung behind them during shows. Carefully executed spectacle, right?
It’s just that right when you think it’s all a bit much, you realize you’re looking at yourself. Maybe you made that beam of light with your flash, with your own expectation of the moment. (And I mean, come on, let’s face it, if any record has had the burden of expectation, it’s this one.) Anyone who’s come to preface their take on Neon Bible with a banal defamation of ‘the hype’ (and I can think of a few, I woke up to one this morning on the radio) should take a long look at themselves in the mirror. We’re all implicated as accomplices to the current projected image of this band.
The entire spectacle of their shows mirrors the narrative arc of Neon Bible, which is as much a piece of literature as it is a record—not so much as poetry as storytelling, of mirroring a few basic rhythms that people go through, and how they translates to actions in the world, into belief in places like Heaven and Hell, and the experience of those states of mind and body in the world.
Of course the Arcade Fire came out with this kind of record. People forget sometimes that artists don’t live in a vacuum, and their output isn’t pre-determined. How could a band that was so quickly vaulted into such a bright spotlight not be singing about security cameras, about projected images on television, and salesmen? How could it not be almost absurdly bright in its spectacle? What’s more absurdly bright than a Neon Bible?
What’s really great about Neon Bible as a narrative arc, though, isn’t it’s reflection of the age—polticial or religious or otherwise. It’s how it’s able to stand up and still make it personal, about what you put into it; what you shine on it yourself.
The title track is one of its strongest moments, with ‘take the poison of your age / don’t lick your fingers when you turn the page’ conjuring up images of Eco’s In the Name of the Rose, and great hopeful books being poisoned (and poisoning others) by men of fear, doubt and desire. It’s definitely a dark world you enter into on this record; slightly haunting, but it also has an inviting element. It may have both classically dark and light moments, but where Funeral had a sense of joy in the wake of pain, Neon Bible has a sense of moral trauma in the wake of the world of choice or its illusion. Definitely a more subtle piece of work, but densely rewarding on different levels.
It’s hard not to think of “the Well and the Lighthouse” as the album’s centerpiece, (quite literally when you visit the lyrics page on neonbible.com) given the young girl who has joined the band on stage to recite the fable on which it is based, Jean de Lafontaine’s the Wolf and the Fox, in French. When they played that first show at the end of January in a church basement in Montreal, Win Butler explained the song’s inspiration and qualified Lafontaine’s work by saying, ‘it’s nice ‘cause at the end he always tells you the moral, and the moral is: that you fucked everything up’.
“Black Mirror” gets things rolling, but I’d suggest the album’s ultimate entry point is the moral crisis of its middle section, and thinking of the record as a cycle that needs to be heard a few times and can then be approached from any point. Take the greyness of a song like “(AntiChrist Television Blues)”. On the surface and in its musical incarnation it’s a grand Springsteen homage epic, as earnest and true as any good Christian man could be. But if the hero of this song who sees his daughters as lanterns and the Lord as the light is a misguided Anti Christ, we’re all implicated in his plight by the way Win Butler sings in the first person with desperation. You don’t know whether to condemn him or feel for him.
“The Well and the Lighthouse” and Lafontaine’s fable both possess this imagery of going down a well, of levers and reflections above. Whether it’s a trapped fox or a fallen angel or a man who’s made a choice and felt very real consequences of it, the crux of Neon Bible is in that image of being able to go either way after the fact. To be trapped in a cage or to lift yourself up out of it becomes a matter of how well you absorb the reflection of your own decisions, and project something positive back.
One of the album’s most haunting (and beautiful) sequences comes during “Ocean of Noise” and the line ‘who here among us, still believes in choice…not I’. That moment of crisis is an important point on the record, and permeates much of that early sense of expansive oceans of darkness, the black waves and bad vibrations of an existential abyss…but it’s not the final moment.
On the surface, Neon Bible’s finale, “My Body is a Cage”, almost comes off as its darkest moment. Trapped in the shackles of choice or tricked by mirrors, an age that calls darkness light, a dead language, isolation from the one you love. In some ways the album returns to the point from which is came, keeping with the cyclical motif. But where Lafontaine’s fable ends with the moral that you’ll always fall for what you desire or what you fear, Neon Bible ends with this:
My body is a cage that
keeps me from dancing
with the one I love,
but my mind holds the key.
Your standing next to me,
my mind holds the key.
When the Arcade Fire sing ‘Heaven is only in my head,’ I don’t think it’s something anyone should take negatively. It’s not so bad, to go to ‘the same place animals go when they die’, if you’re able to conjur Heaven in your head. That might mean that Hell lives there too, but at least we have the keys to live with our choices.
The Gospel of Thomas isn’t part of what people conventionally think of as the Bible these days, but it was just a legitimate an account of some things Jesus said during his time on the planet, dug up much later than the rest of the New Testament. It ends with a great moral of its own that I think is fitting here:
“His disciples said to him: On what day will the kingdom come? Jesus said, the kingdom of the Father will not come by expectation. They will not say: Lo, here! or: Lo, there! But the kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the earth, and men do not see it.”
After their acoustic version of the Well and the Lighthouse in the basement of the Ukranian Federation, the band made their way back upstairs to do one of their mid-crowd versions of “Wake Up”. Most of the people that had made it down to the basement were now trapped somewhere in the middle of the staircase on the way back up. It was hard in that moment, not to identify with Lafontaine’s fox lured down by the cheese, or the hero of “the Well and the Lighthouse”….and it was that realization that made missing the final encore one of the most enjoyable and poignant moments of their shows, for me.
Of course this is all a projection of my own. But ‘I chose my crime, and now it’s mine all mine.’ I imagine anyone looking for some kind egoless journalistic impartiality here stopped reading long ago. But the real joke is on anyone who thinks they can say something about this record, about the expectation and hype and attention around this band, and not realize that we’re all implicated as soon as we open our mouths, or put letters to a page. That’s just it. We’re in this together, you know? You know, if you want to be.