Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Intense Drama and Ambiguous Ruminations

I almost certainly need to listen to it a bit more, and I may well come to revise some of these opinions, but seeing as it's streaming in its entirety over at the NME website, I thought I'd jot down some first impressions on the new Arcade Fire album.

The great handicap in reviewing an album that immediately follows a career defining debut is how to deal with the thorny problem of the record's relationship with its predecessor. I suspect that, on the whole, 'The Neon Bible' will be well received (perhaps even rapturously), but there are elements which might invoke reservations or perhaps even consternation in some quarters. The rapidity with which Arcade Fire have escalated from a word-of-mouth cult into big venue superstars is nothing short of astonishing, and there will inevitably be a small group of fans who now struggle to claim this band as their own. It's an understandable emotion, particularly among obsessive followers of new music, but it doesn't exactly facilitate objective judgment. It's also easy to forget that this is as much a problem for band as audience - how do you develop as artists, whilst retaining what made you special in the first place, when suddenly catering to a mass audience. The Arcade Fire have had to confront this much more quickly than might have been expected. That much of 'The Neon Bible' sounds bigger, grander and more ostentatious than 'Funeral' might also imply an element of clinical calculation in its production, although it has its fair share of more considered, nuanced moments too.

The Bruce Springsteen influence I detected during the band's recent Porchester Hall show is definitely here. The pompously titled '(antichrist television blues)' is pure working man's American rock, a distant cousin of 'Workin' On The Highway' perhaps. Even 'Intervention', with its colossal church organ, wouldn't sound entirely out of place on 'Born In The USA', although it mercifully eschews the more bombastic elements of that record's production. There's a lot of rather basic guitar strumming underpinning the big arrangements, and this makes for some other unexpected reference points. 'Keep The Car Running', with its acoustic guitars and mandolins, resembles 'Fisherman's Blues'-era Waterboys, and the chugging gothic fervour of 'Black Mirror' sounds something akin to the Velvet Underground jamming with Echo and The Bunnymen. So many bands resort to these basic chug and strum patterns, but it's because Arcade Fire use them as backdrops rather than formulaic templates that it works so well. These devices, predictable and over-familiar in lesser hands, provide energy and drive here, over which the band's trademark unison vocal chants and unusual instrumentation weave their more elaborate magic.

Whilst the handsomely re-recorded 'No Cars Go' and 'The Well and the Lighthouse' offer familiar theatrical thrills, 'The Neon Bible' does not entirely abandon quirky charm in favour of bold statement. The title track is wispy and mercilessly concise. Given a few more listens, it may turn out to be the album's most audacious and intriguing moment. The medley of 'Black Wave/Bad Vibrations' is unpredictable and admirably risky. It also provides some welcome space for Regine Chassagne's peculiar vocals, which despite the occasionally shaky pitching, never sound less than enthralling. Best of all is the stunning 'Ocean Of Noise', which has something of the tragic melancholy of Roy Orbison in its mariachi-tinged arrangement. The closing 'My Body Is A Cage' is colossal, but, as I suggested in my recent live review, also has a deeply soulful core.

I suspect if there's a major problem with 'The Neon Bible', it's more lyrical than musical. Over on his Uncut magazine blog, John Mulvey has criticised the use of religious imagery to convey a secular message as an over-worked trope. I'm not sure this is so much the problem, as more that the detail of this album's themes are less well defined than those of 'Funeral'. The romantic vision and wonderful imagery that characterised songs such as 'Tunnels' and 'The Power Out' helped make that album uniquely engaging. Here, there's a lot of dour reflection on the state of the world, but the sense of fear and doom is mostly rather vague and undeveloped. It's not disastrous by any means, but songs like 'Black Mirror' are very portentous, it's just not always clear precisely what they might be portending.

For those wondering how 'Neon Bible' will stand in this band's canon, it's worth recognising that its highlights provide welcome signs that they remain imaginative, impassioned and full of fire. It also shows them perfectly capable of expanding their reach. It's not quite a stunning masterpiece, but it's by no means a crushing disappointment either. For most people, that surely ought to be enough.

No comments: