A sophomore slump, trying too hard, lucky the first time around, or they just weren’t sad any longer; the fact is that Neon Bible isn’t even close to what Funeral was. The one thing I was impressed with the most in their debut were harmonies, but these songs are two or three-chord for the most part. I even checked a guitar tab Web site to confirm my suspicions. Why did they have to change the one thing I liked about them the most? That didn’t mean they weren’t trying hard. In fact, the sheer effort they put into this thing was the one thing that kept this at a rather high rating. They actually put all the money they earned from Funeral and the tours to good use, and they bought a defunct church in Quebec and converted it into their own recording studio. The best thing about owning your own music studio, as Kate Bush would attest, is that you get all the time you would ever want to record and mix your songs.
Believe me, they put so much work into this that its overwhelming. The full sounds of the strings, pipe organs, horns, woodwinds, vibraphones, sound effects, and indescribable synthesizers are so lush and elaborate that it would have flabbergasted even Jeff Lynne. And yet, very little of this seemed too overblown. That’s quite an accomplishment. Jeff Lynne, of course, knew better than to write boring songs lacking even basic choruses, but I’ll be buggered if this album doesn’t contain some of the most mightiest orchestration standards I’ve ever heard anywhere.
“Black Mirror” might be a two-chord song, but based on the instrumentation alone, I couldn’t see fit to give it anything less than an A-. I mean, it seriously sounds like a ballad was trapped up somewhere beneath all that lushness and was trying to escape. Of course, it’s only that repetitive drum beat that keeps it rock ‘n’ roll. And thank goodness for the steady drumbeat, too, because these songs would be nowhere without it. The follow-up song “Keep the Car Running,” again, has utterly FANTASTIC instrumentation, but it’s unfortunately so melodically and harmonically simple. I wonder if it’s just a coincidence that Win Butler’s singing on that song in particular reminded me so much of Bruce Springsteen in Born in the USA? Seriously, listen to “Dancing in the Dark” and then listen to “Keep the Car Running.” Oh, CRAP!
Forget what I said about harmonies for one paragraph while I tell you about the only real exception to that rule. The multi-part suite “Black Wave / Bad Vibrations” is close to an evil-dark masterpiece. I don’t know if it was just suggestion from the song title, but it does sound like an evil “Good Vibrations.” Particularly, the vague Beach-Boy-isms in the first part of the song amidst a quirky, dissonant, and almost synth-pop groove. Brassy vocals sound like a squawking bird sometimes, but they’re weird and turn that experience into something a little more haunting and surreal. The second part isn’t nearly as weird, but they way they orchestrated it, it sounds like the apocalypse. It’s loud, it’s thunderous, it’s dramatic. (It’s thunderous, in part, because they literally inject thunder sound effects in it!) As they would say in French, c’est tres bien!
They let a super dark pipe-organ, that presumably came from the church they bought, take the center stage for “Intervention” and “My Body in a Cage.” I do admit I love the sound of a pipe organ, and that can be an excellent instrument in the context of a pop composition! (Of course, I know a number of people who are absolutely horrified to hear a pipe organ in pop-rock… In fact, they probably wouldn’t even call what Arcade Fire do pop-rock. ……Well, it ain’t classical music!!!) But I like me some pipe-organ! Once again, those songs might not be such impressive compositions, but they sure do sound nice and dark.
They redid a song, “No Cars Go,” from their self-titled LP, naturally with as much lush instrumentation that they could pack into it. It’s a slightly more dramatic and bracing song than most of these others. Despite that being pre-Funeral, it doesn’t exactly have the harmonic brilliance of songs like “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out),” or “In the Backseat.” That being said, still a great band worth following just because I don’t see many bands putting so much effort in their arrangements. But it’s definitely not a good sign that they forgot how to write compelling songs already.