Neon Bible by Arcade Fire. Merge, 2007.
I must confess that I had absolutely no intention of liking Neon Bible. Indie rock, that non-genre with which the Montreal-based Arcade Fire is usually affiliated, often strikes me as self-important and musically uninteresting, and as such I was beyond skeptical of their critically acclaimed sophomore release. To make an indie rock album is to indulge oneself musically at the risk of alienating (Interpol), boring (Franz Ferdinand), or simply irritating (Bloc Party) the listener, and to make an indie rock album about religion, I thought, would be to heap pretense upon pretense. That said, I have another confession to make about Neon Bible: I loved it.
It took me, admittedly, quite awhile to get to that point. My first time through the album left me exhausted from what I can only call its aural assault and hopelessly adrift in its sea of allusion and metaphor. Unlike so much indie rock, however, Neon Bible was compelling enough to bring me back for another listen, and another after that. The more I listened, the more I realized how musically and lyrically subtle the album is. And the more I came to appreciate that subtlety, the more I came to appreciate the album itself. I sadly have not the space for its extraordinary musical nuance. But Arcade Fire’s lyrical subtleties are fascinating in their own right, in no small part because they are, at once fundamental and profound, unmistakably Christian.
As its title might suggest, Neon Bible teems with allusions, both occult and overt, to Christianity, quite a few of which are vehicles for criticism. The surprisingly gentle title track, which unfortunately stoops to cliché in adding a heartstring-tugging children’s choir beneath its chorus, references a risible golden calf, perhaps the perversion of religion practiced by those to whom singer Win Butler addresses the lines “You lost it but you don’t know how” and “It was wrong but you said it was right.” Who exactly these hypocrites are Butler does not say, but he is wary of their influence: “What I know,” he sings, “is what you know is right.” The song’s final lines are a glum appraisal of fire-and-brimstone Christianity: “Not much chance for survival / if the Neon Bible is true.”
The succeeding track, “Intervention,” offers an even more severe critique of Christianity, driven with ironic intent by churchly organ chords. Its second line, “The useless seed is sown,” is a bitter jab at Jesus’ parable of the Sower and the Seed (Mt. 13). Enraged like Jesus at those who would condemn others, the singer asks “Who’s gonna throw the very first stone?” Lines like “Working for the Church while your family dies” and “Every spark of friendship and love will die without a home” throw understatement to the wind in a direct attack on blind fanaticism. More unsettling by far is “Singing Halleluiah with the fear in your heart,” a line that exposes the hypocritical paradox of a theology requiring both love and terror.
But in the midst of all the song’s bile, Butler pleads with God to “Lift me up and take me out of here.” God is still present, even among the hypocrites who worship Him in vain. Like Job, the singer never doubts God’s existence, though he questions much about Him. He may distrust His forgiveness in the lines “The curse is never broken” from the opening track “Black Mirror” and “Some debts you’ll never pay” from “Intervention;” he may be tired of His so-called servants, prompting the line “I don’t want to live in my father’s house no more” in “Windowsill.” But he never forsakes God, or believes that God has forsaken him.
This basic faith imbues all of Neon Bible with a quiet hope, a hope found even in “Ocean of Noise,” which might be the lament of a soul in Hell. The song’s vision of damnation owes much to C.S. Lewis – its title is reminiscent of Screwtape’s cacophonous pit while another of its phrases, “this city of empty streets,” recalls the Hell of The Great Divorce, an ever-expanding city whose inhabitants move farther and farther apart – and the allusions seem appropriate. Lewis offered a hopeful vision of Christianity indeed, one that would allow a soul to admit, “All of the reasons I gave were just lies / to buy myself some time,” and still believe that “I’m gonna work it out.” Whether this belief is tragic or not is for others to debate, and Butler’s tone makes no comment, but the line keeps the album’s subtle hope alive.
That hope is first iterated in the album’s second track, “Keep The Car Running,” a mandolin-driven piece that is both an anticipatory vision of Heaven and a call to vigilance, the metaphor of its title reinforced by the line “they don’t know where and they don’t know when,” an allusion perhaps to Christ’s statement that “not even the angels in Heaven” know the hour of the Last Judgment (Mt. 24:36). It reaches its joyful climax in three songs in the album’s second half, the first of which, “The Well and the Lighthouse,” begins with no hope in sight. Based on a French fable about a wolf who, tempted by a fox, jumps down into a well thinking that the moon reflected in it is a wheel of cheese, the song is stark both musically and lyrically, building to the bleak statement “You always fall / for what you desire / or what you fear.” Its message is simple, and at its core Christian: our short-term actions have long-term consequences, and decisions made out of selfishness or led to by lies can be fatal.
But then, abruptly, “The Well and the Lighthouse” undergoes a dramatic shift. Suddenly it is a waltz, the only waltz on the album. All at once it is Neon Bible’s most upbeat piece by far. And, just as quickly, its lyrics become a joyful affirmation of the risen Christ:
Living in a lighthouse.
If you leave, them ships are gonna wreck.
Living in a lighthouse
The lions and the lambs ain’t sleeping yet.
Here at last is resolution: the hope that was once barely audible is now shouted from the rooftops. God is alive and at work, and though the lion has not yet lain down with the lamb, Christ, without whom we are lost, has not left his post as our guide on the way. The battle between love and fear, so painfully apparent in “Intervention,” has been decided. Love is the victor, and in its triumph triumphs joy.
This joy carries through to the album’s penultimate track, “No Cars Go.” Almost a postmodern spiritual, “No Cars Go” is punctuated by shouts and culminates in the call, “Little babies . . . women and children . . . old folks / Let’s go!” Its most powerful line is “Us kids know,” perhaps an invocation of the Christ who said, “Unless you become like little children, you shall not enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (Mt 18:2). The joy of love is no longer passive. We are no longer waiting – we are going where no cars or planes or subs or spaceships go.
Neon Bible‘s final track, “My Body Is A Cage,” with its muted, vaguely industrial beat, is one of its most complex and one of its best, providing a sobering but hopeful coda to the joy of “No Cars Go.” Its first verse, which begins “I’m standing on a stage / of fear and self-doubt,” recalls Macbeth’s “poor player / who struts and frets his hour upon the stage / and then is heard no more,” hardly a hopeful or a joyous image. Another verse, beginning “I’m living in an age / that calls darkness light,” seems an invitation to despair. The song’s refrain, “My body is a cage / that keeps me from dancing with the one I love / but my mind holds the key,” rings of Gnosticism, the heretical philosophy that considers all good to be in the spirit and all evil to be in the flesh. Beset by confusion from without and within, the singer offers one final plea to God: “Set my spirit free,” to which he adds at last, “Set my body free.” In the face of his wicked world and his own limitations, he refuses to surrender his hope: there is, despite it all, a God before whom he can stand in supplication. With this reassurance Neon Bible, attacker of Christianity and affirmer of Christ, comes to its close, having ultimately and definitively found God.
Jim Shirey ’11 is a first-year student in Pennypacker.