Saturday, 12 December 2009

Album of the Decade - Neon Bible

This article originally appeared on the peerless (yet now sadly defunct) It's owners are now Suburban Tarts, who should be visited post-haste...

It took a predictably long time to come to a decision about the best album of the decade, but in the end it turned out to be easy. Having (even more predictably) made a list of all the albums in my collection released these ten years past and then ruthlessly whittled them down to 25, I began an almost-obsessive programme of listening and re-listening. It soon became clear that the idea of Neon Bible as album of the decade would brook no argument in my brain, and I am as powerless to resist its bombast now as I was when I first heard it.

Neon Bible is an album made in the last years of Bush Jr's ill-fated second term. Shortly after political commentators had dusted down the phrase "lame duck president" and as the race for the democratic and republican candidates moved into full swing, Arcade Fire quietly released their second masterpiece with some creative viral marketing, which all served to add little-needed mystique to an album that had already begun to raise eyebrows.

After the phenomenal success of Funeral, and the hellish touring schedule that followed, Arcade Fire did what any band in their position would do: took a few weeks off, wrote some new material and bought a church. In a move that sounded dangerously concept-albumy, the band purchsed the building with the idea that it would be converted into a studio in which they would record their second record. But time, tide and musical genius wait for no man and the songs for the new record were becoming more real every day, and so the refurbishment work became a part of the recording process, with instruments and equipment fitting in around the scaffolding. By the end of the recording sessions, the work on the building was completed in a fantastic symbiosis that had led to a sound you simply couldn't get any other way. Never knowingly overworked, the band members also allegedly made a deal to learn a new instrument each and to play it on the record. If all musicians were this committed there would be no cracks for Simon Cowell to exploit.

As an ardent atheist, it is no exageration to say that my first encounter with Arcade Fire (their headline set at Latitude 2007) was the closest I will ever come to a religious experience. The thing about a band with 17 members on stage, all of whom play about twenty instruments each, is that at any one time you can have a band, a choir, a circus, an orchestra or any and all of the above. The enormity of the sound is something that there is no way of describing to those who've not experienced it. Percussion instrumets are treated with the scant respect that makes them sound best, string sections appear from nowehere and voices scream in a seemingly never-ending spiral of music. The crowd stand with arms aloft in the manner of the world's muddiest baptist congregation. It really is the most all-
encompassing musical experience I have ever had.

Returning to the album itself, the theme of religion is something that typifies many of the songs crammed into this long-player. Win Butler studied "scriptual interpretation" as a young man and his theories about the place of the church in modern sociey and attitude are strong throughout. Consider as an example the track Intervention, surely the most acerbic commentry on religion's potential to cause conflict since Bob Dylan's With God on Our Side. Elsewhere, the unease of a nation in moral conflict comes across on tracks like Windowsill and Black Mirror, the former in particular describing the disaffection of the younger generation with the policies of their government. Antichrist Television Blues, which is of course most definitely not about Joe Simpson, is a song that simultaneously damns and pities the pushy father figure driven by desperately wanting to make his daughter into a star-cum-cash-cow to escape a menial existence in a dead end job. The abrupt ending of the song leaves the final words hanging in the air. It comes as little surprise that Butler's favourite film is Terry Gilliam's Brazil, this abrupt halt mirroring the dark and disturbing final shot of this movie.

All this of course is set to some of the most incredible music . The drive of tracks like Keep the Car Running and and the final segments of The Well and the Lighthouse are unparalleled anywhere, and the calmer songs like Ocean of Noise and the title track punctuate and pace the album superbly, giving one just enough time to recover from one onslaught before the next begins. The opening to No Cars Go, with it's soaring violins and shouts will forever conjure images in my brain of Cristiano Ronaldo's lightening feet, so often was it used for Match of the Day montages. The church organ is a massively underused instrument in popular music. As with all great pieces of music, be it classical or popular, the ending ties up and defines the album:
My Body is a Cage bringing the sweeping political and theological scope of the record into a starkly introspective and insecure track, with a crescendo that could shake the foundations of any civilisation. And as the Bush administration passed into history, this album serves as a lasting testament that bad times breed the best music, and that great albums really do describe the times in which they appear.

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