When Arcade Fire Looked Outward on ‘Neon Bible’
It didn’t happen overnight, but it still came about pretty quickly. After making one album (2004’s Funeral) and doing a bunch of touring, Arcade Fire had become one of the most acclaimed bands in the world, anointed as the new flag waves by U2, David Bowie, Coldplay and David Byrne. Now all the Canadian collective had to do was make a second record.
In the process of making the sophomore release Neon Bible, the members of Arcade Fire turned their gaze from the inward grief of Funeral to more worldly matters – religion, violence, television, war, power, greed and fear, personified as “a great black wave in the middle of the sea.” Oceans play a major role in the imagery of the album’s songs.
“If you've ever been in a boat when the weather is bad… all of sudden you feel out of control,” frontman and primary songwriter Win Butler told Pitchfork. “Those are the few times when I’m really aware of how out of control of the situation I am. And definitely, if you’ve ever been in the ocean and had a huge wave move over you, you become very aware that you’re not in control.”
Butler was able to gain perspective on the “ocean” that is the U.S. via his status as an American expat. On Neon Bible, his birth country became reflected in, to borrow the title of the album’s lead-off track, a “Black Mirror.”
“It was the first time in my life that I felt like I was visiting my own country as some sort of outsider,” Butler told PopMatters about the effect of touring the U.S. “I had lived in Montreal for a few years at that point, but I didn’t realize that I had really made it my home until that trip.”
He began to look at the U.S. as an alien culture where, Butler said, “Christianity and consumerism are completely compatible, which I think is the great insanity of our times.” Religion became a through line for many of the compositions, reflected in the thoughts of a suicide bomber (“Keep the Car Running”), the aspirations of the father of a reality star (“(Antichrist Television Blues)”) and the devotion of a person “singing hallelujah with the fear in your heart” (“Intervention”). Although the American criticisms of “Windowsill” aren’t explicitly God-obsessed, Butler connects the tune to religion as well.
Listen to "Windowsill"
“In theology there is this idea that it is easier to say what God isn’t than what God is, and in a way that song is my trying to say everything about my country that is not what makes it great or beautiful,” the singer said. “In a way it makes what is great and beautiful and worth fighting to preserve more clear.”
It’s no wonder that most of the album was recorded in a church – a former one, at least, that the members of Arcade Fire purchased in 2005. The bandmates turned the Petite Eglise church in Farnham, Quebec, into a studio over the course of 2006, recording Neon Bible as they went. While the building’s past use might have rubbed off on the lyrical content, the big, central space also allowed the seven-member band to have enough real estate to record live all at once.
The big spaces and big themes seemed to demand big sounds. Neon Bible reveled in expansive arrangements and instrumentation. A film orchestra and military men’s choir were recorded in Budapest to add epic heft to “No Cars Go” (a holdover from Arcade Fire’s debut EP). A gargantuan pipe organ led “Intervention.” Butler’s wife (band multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Regine Chassagne) played the enormous instrument on the album’s fourth track, nailing the performance in one take.
“Normally you think of organ with just a couple of stops open,” Butler told Paste. “It’s like a flute – gentle. But with all the stops pulled it’s got this really aggressive sound. I knew that for ‘Intervention’ it was really going to be about the organ.”
Upon Neon Bible’s release on March 6, 2007, fans and critics were divided over the new, more substantial Arcade Fire sound. While many praised the ambitious arrangements, pointing to the influence of Bruce Springsteen, others felt that the album’s sound could become overblown, pointing to the influence of Bruce Springsteen. In spite of – or because of – this, the album became one of the most-praised releases of the year, included on a bevy of best-of lists at the end of 2007.
Neon Bible also pushed Arcade Fire further into the mainstream. Soon after the album’s release, the band played Saturday Night Live and scored their first No. 1 album in Canada, while hitting No. 2 in both the U.S. and the U.K.
“It’s pretty wild,” Butler told the A.V. Club. “It’s pretty amazing for a band like us to be in that position. It’s funny in kind of a satisfying way.”
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