The Arcade Fire Neon Bible (#5 album)
“Keep the Car Running” (#11 single)
“Intervention” (#31 single)
In a year when an Alaskan megachurch built a sports dome featuring a 400-meter track, it makes sense that the best arena-rock record was released by a pack of Amish-looking Canadians fronted by a guy who barked like a miscast evangelist. The Arcade Fire’s 2004 debut, Funeral, was embarrassingly determined to cope and uplift. And in a sense, it did—it played like a blueprint for a burning building, a way out. But if frontman Win Butler’s heart-bursting Sister Act moment of 2004 was to proclaim, “I can see where I am going to be when the reaper reaches and touches my hand,” this year, he strained to see his shoes, agonizing over occlusion and doom—and prophesying worse. In his 2006 Pazz & Jop essay, Simon Reynolds talked about the thematic darkness of dubstep, alternative metal, and noise, noting that the subgenres weren’t just “unpop” but “anti-pop . . . rejecting pop principles of accessibility and instantness.” Neon Bible had football chants and memorable hooks and hit 2 on the Billboard charts—and was bleaker and more paranoid than any other apocalyptic scenario on the market.
The disquieting aspect of Neon Bible‘s sermon—and popularity—was that it didn’t even suggest a route for salvation, but a world where nauseating fear is just the feeling you wake up with; where man, woman, and child alike are indiscriminately and unavoidably fucked. (If they had any escape route, it was on “No Cars Go,” where Butler recruits the human race with an emphatic “Let’s go!” before admitting, just as dumbly, “Don’t know where we’re going!”) But like I said, Butler’s an evangelist: His success isn’t based on the propagation of Truth, but on his conversion rate. He’d say anything to get you in the pew. And if he didn’t say it with conviction and flash—”hysteria” is this band’s version of “confidence”—there’d be no reason to believe him. When an interviewer brought up the subject of churches to Butler, characterizing them as “one of the few places left in America where there’s no noise,” he subtly disagreed: “It’s designed to have an atmosphere . . . if you’ve ever been to a Catholic service, it’s practically a laser light show.” The string sections and organ swells of “Black Mirror,” “Black Wave/Bad Vibrations,” and “My Body Is a Cage” aren’t war footage, but campy Halloween horror.
Neon Bible, though, for all its fire and brimstone, latent hucksterism, and sometimes cringeworthy universality, was a record with an earnest and hopeful heart. It sounded self-conscious without slipping into cynicism. It wasn’t too caught up in goth pomposity to miss the noises that people make when they sleep, or to think about the way animals instinctively return home when they’re dying. Dog owners ask two common questions of their pets: “Are you hungry?” and “Do you want to go out?” Dogs come to learn the upturned melody of a question and associate it with food or a walk; if you phrased the sentence “Let’s twist again, like we did last summer” as a question, they’d look at you expectantly. On Neon Bible, Win Butler sang assertions like “Every spark of friendship and love will die without a home” and, in a year that sank humans further into embarrassment before God, made them sound a little more like “Everything just might be all right after all”—whatever “all” turns out to be.