Win Butler and the Wise Blood Roadshow
"I preach there are all kinds of truth, your truth and somebody else's, but behind all of them, there's only one truth and that is that there's no truth…"
- from Wise Blood, Flannery O'Connor
Arcade Fire's sophomore LP was a bona fide hit with critics, as attested by a current score of 87/100 on Metacritic. This feat is altogether remarkable for any album, let alone one so anticipated as it was the follow up to a brilliant debut, but it only scratches the surface of a more complex story: while professional critics went universally positive with this one, the site's users were a bit more sour (as of this writing, critic reviews were 43 positive, 3 mixed, 0 negative [about 7% non-positive] while user ratings were 264 positive, 53 mixed, 19 negative [about 21% non-positive]). This matches up well with the anecdotal inevitability that you can find someone in any urban bar who is more than willing to tell you how disappointed they were by this record - it is decidedly the one album out of AF's first three efforts that does not have near-unanimous backers, even within the band's own fan base.
So the question is: while praised by tastemakers, is Neon Bible unfairly maligned by the masses, or is it somehow both ahead and behind its own time and place, mired in a backward-looking malaise that proved too far out-of-step with the contemporary music and attitudes of the time?
Montreal's favorite sons and daughters delivered what is arguably one of the best triptychs of the modern era, with albums that each centered on specific themes even though they weren't explicitly "concept albums". Funeral casts a warm glow over the stark realities of death and aches with nostalgia for a more innocent past; Neon Bible barrels forward through identity crisis while pondering the emptiness of societal institutions (e.g. religion and consumerism); and The Suburbs casts a cold eye on the present, both romantic about the past and increasingly wary of modernity and urban sprawl. Reflektor is an outlier here in that it doesn't carry a theme, or at least doesn't do so as visibly as its predecessors - instead it skews toward a risk-and-reward framework and the results are a little more scattershot than those on the first three albums. As I write, we are about a month away from their newest offering [*see Editor's Note below], and first on a major label, Everything Now - obviously we are all in the dark about how that will fare or how it will color the rest of the discography.
Even though 2007's Neon Bible "coincidentally" (according to Win Butler) shares its name with a 1954 novel by John Kennedy Toole, I have always thought that it bears a stronger kinship with Flannery O'Connor's debut 1952 novel, Wise Blood. In that work, a man with the very 21st Century hipster name of Hazel is disillusioned by fighting overseas and returns home to a Tennessee that has moved on without him. He focuses his angst and long-fomenting religious doubt into a bid to create a religion built on nothing, a belief system that is actually the opposite of a "religion". The notion of "wise blood" is the idea that a person can know their own way without any influences from the outside: no need for a supreme being or a prophet to light the path.
This intertextuality is completely assumed on my part, one can only assume that if the band won't cop to a certain amount of influence from a well-known novel of the same name, then they would probably never agree with my take on it. But I would go to the mat for my argument, for reasons including but not limited to:
- Several lyrics cast doubt on religious imagery (see: "I don't wanna live in my father's house no more", and "the lions and the lambs ain't sleeping yet") - this doubt is almost exactly what is expressed by Hazel in his bid to conquer faith
- Other lyrics satirize modern mainstays ("MTV, what have you done to me?") in the same way that O'Connor satirizes hucksters in her novel - both artists hold accountable those who would profit on uneducated idolatry
- Both Arcade Fire and Wise Blood use anti-war sentiment and imagery to paint pictures of disaffection and disenfranchisement
- The song "Black Mirror" is almost a thesis statement to O'Connors novel: it describes a vortex that only shows the viewer a sublime emptiness, everlasting and devoid of all value and judgement ("it knows not pride or vanity, it does not care about your dreams…the curse is never broken") - like the quote at the top of this piece, the proverbial black mirror is an anti-institutional catch-all that will show you only one truth: "that there's no truth"
It would be an understatement to call these ideas ambitious. As a listener, hearing a band bitch about cities decimating natural beauty is easy to get behind. Hearing a whimsical masterpiece about the lights going out in the neighborhood is cathartic and charming. But it may be that the audience has a harder time with Neon because the themes are, by their very nature, much more complex and nuanced. For example, a devout Christian might struggle with the idea of "working for the church while your family dies" because it implies that the church as an institution is at least somewhat to blame for that outcome. Similarly a military veteran might rather not contemplate a lyric like "World War III, when are you coming for me?" for obvious and completely understandable reasons. More than any other Arcade Fire work to date, Neon Bible is a difficult, weighty album. This is made all the more problematic by an occasional clunkiness in lyric and tone - while this criticism is often levied against AF and is very often fair, it means that in the scope of Neon they come off even less able to find a sweet spot between a genuine call for reflection/action and simple bombast bordering on self-righteousness. When they overshoot into the latter, it is arguably much harder to swallow here than on other works.
The upshot of all this is that it sucks. Because musically speaking, Neon might be Arcade Fire's finest hour. Some highlights:
- "Black Mirror"'s ominous shifting and sideways glances, mimicking the tone of an occult chant and even speaking in tongues (well, French, but still…).
- "Keep the Car Running" is a favorite of mine and other fans that I know: catchy, bright, and uplifting, especially with the dazzling strings and woodwinds. Many consider this one of their most Springsteenian tracks, but I'll see that and raise it: this goes beyond The Boss and into the realm of Eddie and the Cruisers, a fictional band partly based on Springsteen and others. Listen to "On the Dark Side" and you'll hear what I'm talking about.
- "Intervention" builds one of the greatest slow burns in indie rock into one of the greatest key-changes in indie rock and pays off with a massive crescendo.
- "Ocean of Noise" is another focal point of orchestration where brass takes the song over in the final moments and raises the song to the next level.
(Ironically, while "No Cars Go" is one of my favorite Arcade Fire songs, I never felt like it belonged on this album. It is a beautiful song and an album highlight, but I just can't get behind it in this context. I loved it on the self-titled 2003 EP, and while I like this beefed up version even more with all the added instrumentation and better recording, it feels like the band just couldn't pass up on re-making it for a wider audience and it's difficult to get past the feeling it was shoehorned into the sequence.)
On a song-by-song basis, the album works together very well from beginning to end - even the less-remarkable entries in the cycle ("Neon Bible", "Windowsill") have loving homes in the in-between spaces amid the paranoia and grandiosity of the more classic tunes. In much the same way that Funeral took its larger-than-it-sounds magnitude from a collection of small recording spaces to a claustrophobically anthemic extreme, Neon was recorded in a converted church to lend feelings of worship and reverence to the proceedings and all the songs benefit from the approach.
So where does that leave us? To recap: critics loved the album, fans are somewhat divided on it. I submit that this is because the themes were harder to get across in a way that landed for an audience that maybe wasn't ready for it. But even considering these challenges in perception, the record is a virtual masterpiece in terms of musicality.
It would be a hard sell to argue that Arcade Fire didn't succeed with Neon Bible, both in the scope of how they wanted the album to sound and in how they probably imagined it would be perceived. When asked in that same AV Club interview if he had considered that the album might chart well (it peaked at #2 and went Gold and Platinum in several countries), Win Butler said "It definitely doesn't consume my thoughts…" Viewed in a certain light, it's easy to infer from that statement that Arcade Fire were more than prepared to deliver an album that didn't suit everyone. And if the intention was to make their second album a statement record that dealt with difficult themes, then they definitely pulled it off.
But I keep thinking back to Wise Blood. Hazel is never able to get his anti-ministry off the ground. He is never able to fully reform the faithful into secularists. As is often the case with ideologues in real life, he ends up essentially shunned by all of mainstream society because the reality that they know (including their faith) is much more comfortable and reassuring than what he is offering. Neon Bible could be seen as a casualty of a similar phenomenon: for better or worse, rock fans weren't necessarily looking to be "woke" back in 2007, and it wouldn't be a stretch to say that a number of them developed a resistance to Neon as a reaction to themes that were a little uncomfortable. While it is indisputably great, especially when viewed alongside Funeral and The Suburbs as an evolving dissertation, it's rarely viewed as AF's peak.
In a way it's like Arcade Fire was out there prophesying the end of days and calling on their brethren to reflect and repent…when really people just wanted to "dance in the police disco lights".
**Editor's Note: This article originally appeared on ControlForever.com in 2017. It has since been taken down and we decided to give it a new life here on Re-Critic. To preserve its original context, we have decided to leave the references slightly dated, as it was written before the release of Everything Now in the same year and we don't think updating it would greatly affect the overall quality. With that in mind, only slight modifications have been made. Enjoy.**