The down side

Finding the heart of the Arcade Fire
By NICK SYLVESTER  |  March 6, 2007

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BEYOND CLICHÉ: Neon Bible is an overload of nos, don’ts, can’ts, nots, and nevers.

Neon Bible is a fantastic album. The Bowie/Bono/Boss comparisons you may have seen thrown around are pretty much spot-on, both in sonics and in scope. The best tracks are monstrous anthems about everybody and nobody in particular, about the invisible anxieties of the day-in/day-out grind. They’re about growing up and sucking it up, moving past late-night dorm-room sessions about how fucked the whole universe turned out to be and now just trying to make the best of it all, about moving beyond escapism and finding the courage to believe in something, anything, cliché’d as that might seem.

All this is a complete shock to me. For two years I’ve been trying to figure out why I haven’t been this band’s biggest fan, why I thought the Arcade Fire’s 2004 Merge debut, Funeral, was so awful. It wasn’t you, as it were, it was me — except I knew it was you. Something about the whole thing struck me as dishonest. Then-Pitchfork reviewer David Moore, who fired those 9.7 shots heard round the world, won no friend in me for his “they have known real, blinding pain” line, which amounted to a pre-fab poor, press-friendly attempt to use the deaths of two Arcade Fire grandparents (and an AF uncle) as an excuse for Funeral’s pointless bombast, for blunt pre-teen lyrics like “But now that I’m older, my heart’s colder, and I can see that it’s a lie.” Really! Not that the album’s themes of loss and inner distance were irrelevant, or that the songs weren’t well crafted. But that only made Funeral more repulsive, since I was neither swayed by it in real time nor taken by the nostalgic pleasure in singer Win Butler’s naive answer to the pressure of the world: “Let us grow our hair long and forget all that we used to know.”

The odd thing is that Moore practically gave up writing about anything indie after his Funeral review, turning his efforts toward teenpop. Wrenched logic on my part, but as soon as he made that jump, Funeral finally made sense to me: it was a teenpop record. The album just didn’t like me. It did, however, resonate with the 300,000 people who bought it, who swore by Butler’s verge-of-tears delivery and his hard-won revelations and his willful distrust in all things Us Adults Know, who took comfort in his woolgathering.

I downloaded Neon Bible mostly as a matter of duty, off one of those blogs that posts rapidshare links for freshly leaked LPs. I was just trying to be a responsible Internet music person, maybe even angling to write one of those pieces about indie rock with “major-label sounds.” I wasn’t expecting to be impressed. But from the first moments of “Black Mirror,” that jumpy straight-eighths piano vamp with the halftime drums pushed way back in the mix as if they were two rooms down even, the band seem dampened, darkened, as if they’d been let down by someone or flat-out betrayed. “I walked down to the ocean/After waking from a nightmare/No moon, no pale reflection,” Butler mutters apocryphally.

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