The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Thursday, March 15, 2007

A degree of bigness is of course a vital prerequisite of music; there are the intimate, whispered gestures, but their microcosm is so greatly magnified by the balance of large emotions (if not necessarily large gestures), and sometimes when you’re unwell you need that bigness to drag or entice you back into the wider and lighter world. Bigness doesn’t have to mean the arid, echoing plains of so much compromised ‘80s pop, crashing Linn drums, distant Synclavier whines and portentous bellows of voice. Bigness can entail generosity of spirit and message, wide, deep and varied landscapes, a means of conveying emotions which would not work if delivered in a polite hush.

The Arcade Fire are one of those rare groups who can sound big without even trying. Despite all the misleading talk about ‘80s AoR recividism on their second album, Neon Bible – the kind of smugly deliberate misunderstanding which, dare I say, would have well become Ignatius J Reilly – they succeed in bringing to their music a tonal and architectural depth which enlarges their space without having to underline it. Though recorded in various parts of Quebec, Budapest, New York and London, there is never a moment when they don’t sound like an ensemble playing and breathing together.

If there is a Springsteen sheen to their new work, then it’s Born In The USA as it might have sounded played by the Seeger Sessions band in the depths of Kane’s Xanadu – the black, grey and white tones of the design of the CD booklet itself suggest a great debt to Gregg Toland; the visual concept which plays throughout, involving a synchronised swimming team looking like tied-up insects and a children’s pageant with swords drawn and sombre, silent Bible reading, is decisively Wellesian. When the pipe organ erupts underneath Regine’s “Take you out of here” at a key moment in the song “Intervention,” it is as if an enormous-eyed God has strode into the lobby and switched on every floodlight available to him to deny the anti-Church message which the song is communicating, since “Intervention” is all about fear, suppressed rage, the former soldier who continues to work for the Church for scraps even while he is on the verge of becoming broke and homeless and his family is dying around him – there is a terrible chill in the line “Singin’ Hallelujah with the fear in your heart.” Again and again Neon Bible tells the story of what can happen to someone blinded by pride who won’t let anyone stand by him. “Windowsill,” which progresses from its acoustic “Get Back” intro towards sturdy brass lines, expresses the deathwish isolation of a would-be “Dancing In The Dark” progenitor who finally cannot bear to look at anything – “Don’t wanna hear the noises on TV,” “Don’t wanna give ‘em my name and address,” “Don’t wanna live in my father’s house no more” – until the litany culminates in the only possible exit: “Why did I take the pill?/Because I don’t wanna see it at my windowsill!”

Some songs speak more openly of apocalypse. The introductory “Black Mirror” places everything at a distance – piano, strings and tympani all muffled, as though already in the bunker – while Butler intones his entreaties of doom: “Please show me something that isn’t mine.” The extraordinary “Black Wave/Bad Vibrations,” meanwhile, begins with Regine’s shrill proclamations, like the B52s riding the final waves of Coltrane’s Ascension (“Run from the memory!”) before slowing down to a more majestic tempo as Butler takes over with his rumbling “The sound is not asleep/It’s moving under my feet” as the Earth collapses into rubble.

Meanwhile, “Keep The Car Running” is folk-rock (the jaunty mandolin) as threaded through the threnodies of Penderecki (Owen Pallett’s exceptional air-raid string scores with that momentary but piercing blast of lead guitar), once more with that undertow of fleeing fear (“There’s a fear I keep so deep/Knew its name since before I could speak”) so total and penetrating that it provokes him to run from the ones who would be most willing to protect him (“If some night I don’t come home/Please don’t think I’ve left you alone”) in order to avoid the unspecified pursuers (“They know my name ‘cause I told it to them”). Eventually it may be that he is running from nothing save his own mirror; but the Arcade Fire make it feel as though they are running away from the world as it has suboptimally mutated, and dragging the rest of us along with them for our own sake. Even, or especially, at their darkest, they are here to save.

The darkest thing on Neon Bible is also the track which sounds the lightest, at least initially, the controversial “(Antichrist Television Blues).” Yes it takes its cue from Springsteen – but remember how consumed Born In The USA was by the concept of running away, escaping (even the singer’s own body), finally breaking down (that shattering moment on the title track when Max Weinberg at the drums suddenly turns into Andrew Cyrille). And the song’s gentle two-step is a universe away from gratuitous hammering hugeness; and still there are those dissonant strings hovering like vultures forty thousand miles above the forlorn and lonely car (or truck?) in which the protagonist is taking his daughter (already “like a bird in a cage”); she can apparently sing but is unwilling to do so on a stage, and we feel her paralysing terror in Regine’s backing vocals, at first slow-motion (half-speed) and then breaking forth in a high, heartbreaking wail. Meanwhile, Butler’s “God-fearing man” continues to bang his own head against his own windshield, somehow thinking that the purpose of God will shine forth if only his thirteen-year-old girl would get on that stage and sing, throwing out memes like “You gotta work hard/And you gotta get paid” without really believing any of them. Eventually his patience and civility run out and the inner demon revealed as he roars to his daughter about how “I was working downtown for the minimum wage” at her age. The music escalates to what promises to be a calamitous climax as he screams: “I’m through being cute! I’m through being nice! O tell me, Lord, am I the Antichrist?” – and then the music suddenly cuts off, like the presumed razor at the throat. It is the most frightening sequence on the album.

And yet it is not just about Springsteen; we suffer for the limited supply of convenient comparison points available on tap, not to mention drowning ourselves, or at the very slightest bogging ourselves down, in debates about sincerity or meaning or internalism; “Intervention” is only unknown because most people outside Canada don’t know about the precedent of Matthew Good, who sings vivid and virulent protests designed to be performed big and spacious; the alternating despair and euphoria of “The Well And The Lighthouse” – how deftly does that latter elide from a near New Romantic beginning towards a 6/8 soul ballad and finally, via the refrain “the lion and the lambs ain’t sleeping yet” to a beautifully unearthly coda (note Regine’s angelic “sleeping yet”) for CS Lewis and celeste – would be instantly known to those who hadn’t yet forgotten Pete Wylie (his 1984 Mighty Wah! album A Word To The Wise Guy is an especially significant pointer throughout Neon Bible – the same unflinching stare in the face of the worst that free market-driven life can offer, long enough to stare it down and defeat it).

And so there must be songs of hope to balance the blackness. “Ocean Of Noise” is the most defiantly gorgeous song on the collection (and obviously the quietest), beginning like a Chris Isaak shuffle with tombstone piano strikings, but again progressing, particularly on the line “I’m gonna work it out,” into an unlikely New Jersey Turnpike version of the Associates, with a lovely touch of mariachi brass to end. “No Cars Go” likewise seems to favour the rising sun over the house on fire; the sun itself breaks through the opening low brass chord, giving way to the mandolin/accordion voicings familiar from Funeral, albeit always with unexpected flourishes (the pause before the fifth verse, the brief electro pulse, the fluttering woodwinds and again those spectral strings. At last the refugees make their escape – “Women and children, let’s go!” cries an exultant Butler, “Old folks, let’s go! Don’t know where we’re goin’!” – which in turn gives way to a choir and martial drums.

To end, the catharsis; “My Body Is A Cage” is an extraordinary performance from Butler, initially set against shadowy organ and clunky drum machine, a post-Burdon/Lennon torch ballad which tries very hard not to be “I Put A Spell On You” but nonetheless works exquisite magic – “My body is a cage,” he wails, “that keeps me from dancing with the one I love…but my mind holds the key.” Once again a choir joins in, and full drums make their entrance…

…and then, at 2:10, God suddenly cranks up the volume and lets the true sunshine in via the pipe organ as the music explodes in exhilarating blossoms of freedom. The words threateningly refer back to “Windowsill” and his father’s debts (“Just because you’ve forgotten/Doesn’t mean you’re forgiven”) but then Butler recovers himself to scream his strident defiance against the world ruined by others – “I’m living in an age that screams my name at night!/But when I get to the doorway there’s no one in sight.” The key is turned (“You’re standing next to me…Set my spirit free/Set my body free”) and something like liberation is achieved.

It seems beyond the realms of credulity to me that the emotional truthfulness and awesome generosity repeatedly demonstrated throughout Neon Bible can somehow be interpreted as “insincere” or hardening up and producing what they think their audience wants. Perhaps it’s simply that too many people remain scared of true bigness in music, need to traduce it to levels compatible with their own tunnelled eyes. Anyone who listened to the Islands and Final Fantasy albums last year won’t need convincing of that, or the Arcade Fire’s continued importance as the not-so-distant Quebecois conscience of the Canadian music world as it beautifully stands in 2007. However, it needs to be faced; Neon Bible was never going to be another Funeral – these are desperate times which require slightly harder remedies, and if we can grasp with our own ample resources of generosity the hymns, the pleas that Win Butler and his group are making on behalf of those who continue to be ruled out of the ghastly white heat of Thatcherism/Reaganism Mk II, who want to fly high in their own souls rather than in an anonymous and unforgiving market, who seek not to tread on everyone else but to be able to stand by themselves, then we can better understand how great is the gift which Neon Bible proposes. The fact that enough people in Britain empathise deeply enough with these words and feelings to send this record to number two in its first week of release acts as further glad confirmation that we are not yet dead, and that heaven can somehow still come to reside in all our heads.

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