One of the key moments of my young music loving career came with the album Louder Than Bombs, the singles compilation by The Smiths. On it, one song in particular struck my young 12 year old brain – specifically the song “Panic” – with the refrain:
Burn down the disco / Hang the blessed DJ / Because the music that he constantly plays / It says nothing to me about my life.
Those words have been bouncing around my head ever since, for what I think are obvious reasons. The fact of the matter is that an overwhelming majority of music produced for mass audiences says absolutely nothing about my own experience. The other half of that coin is that I have spent the remaining years of my life accumulating music that says something about my life.
Last weekend, word spread (aka a dozen emails in my inbox) that the new Arcade Fire album had leaked, and did I want to hear it? I think I have made it pretty clear on this blog how highly I have been anticipating it, because frankly, The Arcade Fire says something to me about my life. Their last album, Funeral, remains one of my favourite albums of the ’00’s. Yet, with all of the 21st century bands that I have fallen in love with in a debut album, almost all of them have let me down in their follow ups. The exception (thus far) being The Shins, who have remained consistent (so far), and even to a degree improving with each consecutive release.
I had high hopes for Neon Bible, specifically on the strength of the songs that have already been leaked – and more specifically the strength of the first single, “Intervention” which is an amazing piece of music, that I will admit here has actually brought tears to my eyes. The song is a plea for people to wake up, to stop putting their faith in dead institutions – when Win Butler sings “You say it’s money that we need / as if we’re only mouths to feed / and no matter what you say / there’s some debts you’ll never pay” and “Working for the church while my family dies / Your little baby sister’s gonna lose her mind / Every spark of friendship and love will die without a home” There is something about Wins voice – this meloncholy sense of resolve and pain, combined with the swirling strings and the grandiose pipe organ that makes me feel something real. Melodramatic? Yes. Effective? Absolutely.
So, it is with this background that I approach Neon Bible, and I will say right away that my expectations were exceeded. These songs speak to me, to us, in this post-911 nightmare that we share. There are a few themes that I am seeing throughout this piece. The first is the most obvious one – a political reaction against the change in America after 911, and indeed throughout the rest of the world. Win sings to his despair at the direction that the world is taking, specifically his unease at the increasing surveillance and panopticism that is apparent to me after reading Foucault all month. For example, in Black Mirror, the opening track, Win sings “Shot by a security camera /You can watch your own image / and also look yourself in the eye / Black Mirror, Black Mirror, Black Mirror.” Later in the song “Windowsill” / “I don’t want to give them my name and address /I don’t want to see what happens next.”
This lyric, the fear and the unease being experienced en masse is another dominant theme that I am hearing here – that general sense of foreboding that I have written about here previously, and captured most perfectly in the second half of the song “Black Waves / Bad Vibrations” – “Nothing lasts forever, that’s the way its gotta be / there’s a great black wave in the middle of the sea / for me.” Indeed, this general feeling of dread comes back in the same vernacular in “Ocean of Noise” – “Left in the morning / while you were fast asleep / to an ocean of violence / a world of empty streets.”
This album is not perfect, but close. The title track “Neon Bible” is an oddity that I will fully admit to not really getting at this point. Compared to the emotional complexity of the rest of the album, this song feels like a toss off. Yet, all in all, this album is really good, ney: really important. A rosetta stone for our times, which future generations will use to help understand where we are at this point.