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Review: Arcade Fire – Neon Bible

This review of Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible first ran in the March 2007 issue of Spin, and we’re republishing it here to mark the 10th anniversary of the album’s U.S. release. Recently, Arcade Fire shared a new song featuring Mavis Staples, “I Give You Power,” and announced a European tour. Their upcoming fifth album is expected later this year.

In the beginning, Arcade Fire staged their own Funeral, a debut album filled with so much life that it transcended the deaths that helped shape it and the excitement that greeted it. Ecstatic enthusiasm—a rare indie-rock commodity—was expressed both onstage and in the audience, and the band’s charm stemmed from their ability to embody and inspire a cathartic state of wonder. But what to do when the funeral turns into an 18-month celebration that moves from small clubs to big festivals—and welcomes esteemed attendees like David Bowie and U2? How do you recapture the darkness in order to flood it with light again? You open the Bible and head to the nearest house of worship.

So Arcade Fire bought an old church outside Montreal and converted it into a studio, then spent much of 2006 melding haunting, religion-inspired lyrics with noises joyful enough to ward off any demons that might be drawn to such an exercise. Neither a timid repeat nor a knee-jerk departure, the bigger, bolder Neon Bible better captures what Arcade Fire achieve live: that sense of exhilarated careening born from the realization that cynicism’s opposite isn’t unremitting cheer, but stirring recognition and defiance. Funeral provided context and impetus for the congregational experience; Neon Bible actually matches the live show’s scope and emotion.

It begins with the ominous chug of “Black Mirror,” whose tense strings and stories of unbroken curses swell into the perfect counterpart for “Keep the Car Running,” which quickly hits a pure pop plateau and never relents. The title track threatens dreariness, but its delicate mood persists; and in “Intervention,” singer Win Butler meets his new favorite subject head-on: “Working for the church while your family dies / You take what they give you and you keep it inside / Every spark of friendship and love will die without a home.” Sure, that reads depressing, but the triumphant vocals and angelic chorus suggest that redemption isn’t just possible; it’s inevitable.

Then there’s the rousing “(Antichrist Television Blues),” which introduces a new Arcade Fire, one that channels Bruce Springsteen’s earthy, pessimistic Americana with more clarity than the KillersSam’s Town and the Hold Steady’s Boys and Girls in America combined (sample lyric: “Any idea where I was at your age? / I was working downtown for the minimum wage”). The song almost supernovas under its own stress. Like each of the album’s many pinnacles, it feels carefully considered yet uncontrived, a bubbling mix of raw confusion and refined conviction. If Arcade Fire can deliver another chapter as inspirational as this, they’ll need to add a lot more pews.

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