City Paper is not for tourists
As “No Cars Go,” the penultimate track on Arcade Fire’s second album, crests its orchestral wave, vocalist Win Butler calls out to his audience: “Little babies, let’s go!” Your spine will tingle. Your eyes might water. But 10 minutes later, you’ll probably think, Babies? Neon Bible is the Titanic of indie-rock records: the Montreal collective employs what sounds like a Hollywood budget’s worth of choirs, orchestras, hand-claps, and hurdy-gurdies, all designed to make you cry like you’ve just seen Leonardo DiCaprio slip into the icy deep. But beneath all the special effects, Titanic was just a mediocre love story, and beneath all of those overdubs, Neon Bible is just a pretty good goth album—imagine 10,000 Maniacs playing Cure songs. “Black Mirror” opens the album with Butler weaving a web of ambiguous dread amid clarinet flourishes and groaning tubas: “I walk down to the ocean/After waking from a nightmare/No moon, no pale reflection,” he sings before reciting the song’s title in a mournful whisper. But where Robert Smith mixed gloomy lyrics and gloomy music and got gloom, Arcade Fire couches its dour sentiments in Broadway bombast and ends up with Meat Loaf. Sometimes this works in its favor. Bat Out of Hell rocked with so much motorcycle- and dragon-driven fury that you could forget how stupid it was, and Neon Bible benefits from the same orchestral shock and awe. On “Intervention,” Butler and his wife, Régine Chassagne, sing lines like “I can taste your fear” with such urgency and passion that you don’t notice it’s the kind of line that usually comes from a teen wearing black lipstick. But Meat Loaf at least had a sense of humor, and Arcade Fire never cracks a smile. Strip away the tubas, the clarinets, and the choirs, and Neon Bible’s music is stuffed with heavy-handed melodrama. Songs like “Keep the Car Running” and “No Cars Go” attempt to channel classic-rock escapism à la Born to Run, but their orchestral bluster is set to contrived slogans. “Every night my dream’s the same/Same old city with a different name/Men are coming to take me away/I don’t know why, but I know I can’t stay,” Butler sings on “Keep the Car Running.” The Boss might have grown up in the burbs, but people loved him because his songs were about running away from the ghetto. Here Butler doesn’t seem at all sure what he’s running from, or why, only that he’s afraid. Accompanied by a pounding rhythm section and an orchestra, Butler can make you feel for a moment that his words actually mean something, but he’s leading a great band that plays mediocre songs.