The orchestra geeks in the Arcade Fire sure know how to keep fans salivating over their new record, Neon Bible. Between multiple-night concert stands in select cities; a charity single, "Intervention," put up for sale on iTunes (after "Black Wave/Bad Vibrations" was mistakenly leaked first); and the Web site www.neonbible.com with a phone number, 1-866-NEON-BIBLE, that stereogum .com operatives said band members actually answered it's enough to drive fans of the Montreal collective mad.
This mysterious Internet presence is perhaps the most puzzling part of the publicity blitz leading up to Bible's March 6 release. After clicking through www.neonbible.com's front page, highlight the "Lyrics" link on the next page. Up pops a serene-looking child dressed in a prim frock, reading a "book" that actually links to Neon Bible's lyrics and, curiously, to the fable "The Wolf and the Fox" by seventeenth-century French poet Jean de la Fontaine.
De la Fontaine's story goes something like this: One night, a fox finds a well with a giant wedge of cheese at its bottom; to get within noshing distance, he climbs down to it in a bucket. But his weight causes another bucket to rise to the surface of the well, thus stranding him to certain death that is, until he convinces a wolf that meanders by to eat the cheese as well. Wolf climbs into the empty bucket and heads for the wedge, fox rises to the well's top and voilà! Fox one, wolf zero.
So this clearly raises the question: What does this have to do with the Arcade Fire's new record? Well, everything if one considers the last line of de la Fontaine's piece ("Our faith is prone to lend its ear/To anything which we desire or fear") in the context of Bible's apparent-cousin "The Well and the Lighthouse." The song's protagonist greedily mistakes moonlight glinting off water at the bottom of a well for riches, causing a fox-like character to exclaim, "You fool, now that you know your end is near; you always fall for what you desire or what you fear!"
In other words: Is religion really there when we want something or are afraid or does the folly of greed overshadow all? These questions and others are explored (although not exactly answered) on Bible, which is a dense, academic album fixated on questions of spirituality, religion and the concept of self and, more specifically, how to reconcile these things in a bleak world where uncertainty is the norm, hope seems dead, and God isn't exactly benevolent. (That is, if He exists at all.)
This approach is quite a change from the group's 2004 breakthrough, Funeral, which ruminated heavily on aging and the death-rebirth Mobius strip albeit from a perspective of possibility: The path blazed by the Grim Reaper is lit by a "lightning bolt," while countless mentions of "light" and staying awake permeate the lyrics, all classic literary allusions to knowledge and truth.
But Bible's outlook is largely rife with the terror of blankness and darkness: The string-buoyed swoon "Windowsill" talks of being trapped in a house by rushing water ("The tide is high, and it's rising still") while "Black Mirror" a thunderstorm-like musical cousin to Echo & the Bunnymen's "The Killing Moon" speaks of "waking from a nightmare" to see "no moon, no pale reflection." Explicit references to wars, bombs and a vaguely sinister "they" also abound, as if physical violence, if not spiritual nihilism or Big Brother, threatens the world's livelihood. Even the phrase "Neon Bible" is telling, as its gaudy connotation conjures a lesser form of worship where redemption is impossible because free will is nonexistent: On the title track, there's "not much chance for survival if the Neon Bible is right" because in its pages, "a vial of hope and a vial of pain, in the light they both looked the same."
The most positive lyrics on Bible come within the uptempo, daybreak yelp "No Cars Go," which makes sense, since that song dates from the Arcade Fire's 2003 debut EP. And in true ambiguous Bible fashion, it's unclear whether this optimistic outlook influences the album's final track, "My Body Is a Cage." A hollow, creepy song that begins a cappella and ends with ponderous death-march organ, "Cage" encapsulates the album's struggle of head vs. heart, of overcoming external barriers. "My body is a cage that keeps me dancing with the one I love," Win Butler croaks throughout, "but my mind holds the key" an idea that eventually crescendos by the end to a cry of "set my spirit free." To live? To die? You decide.
Unsurprisingly, Bible lacks the Talking Heads-esque childish playfulness and jug-band jubilation of Funeral, and there's nothing as gut-punching as "Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)" or as catchy as "Rebellion (Lies)." In fact, Bible sounds more like a somber funeral than Funeral does; minor chords, cherubic harmonies, and sprawling, chilly string-and-horn arrangements combine for fire-and-brimstone hymns and stormy sea lullabies. (The exceptions are the bouncy swagger of "Keep the Car Running" and "(Antichrist Television Blues)," both of which are dead ringers for Bruce Springsteen.) But the album isn't boring; it's just more subtle, more challenging, more immense and a quintessential headphones album.
So is Neon Bible good? Yes. Is it better than Funeral? Well, apples and oranges. Bible's the type of album on which college English classes and doctoral theses are built but it's also an album that, like Funeral, fosters community (just check out any YouTube clips of recent live shows or the fevered message board brainstorming about hidden messages). Despite questioning traditional religious avenues, the Arcade Fire is its own self-contained religion for the disenfranchised and searching, for post-college kids stuck in dead-end cubicle jobs who miss using their brains and can't relate to organized worship but long for the mystery of the spiritual unknown. Annie Zaleski