Neon Bible: Topical Fairy Tales

And so this week comes the release of Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible (Merge).

There are certain things, in certain circles, that one had better talk around—things to gesture at, perhaps, or drop in archly at the non-business end of a knowing simile, but never, for fear of embarrassing all involved, address directly. This became clear to me during a dining-hall meal when someone—as grazing undergraduates are wont to do—decided to talk about music.

“You know, that Arcade Fire album? Actually really good.”

Nervy silence. My roommate broke it: “Fuck that band. That band is for people with weird sexual feelings.”

“Wait, don’t you listen to them?”

“Well, obviously—I have weird sexual feelings.”

Bashful nods of recognition.

If grown-ups still care to know about such matters, I can think of no better distillation of the peculiar boxed-wine pathos of my generation. Yes, we play-act as partisans of higher forms—angular rock, avant-garde hip-hop, Justin Timberlake—but when it comes down to it, the Montreal septet Arcade Fire pretty much describes the sonic miasma swirling around the dorm rooms of our inner lives.

To appreciate the embarrassment this poses, consider that four of the nine songs on the band’s magisterial 2004 debut album, Funeral (Merge), are entitled “Neighborhood.” If our conniving, striving parents spent the whole of their lives trying to remain independent young adults, it seems we’re mostly committed to honoring the uncanny Halloween dusk of our pre-adolescence, piling up layer after layer of feigned sadness, real ambivalence and ecstatic erudition. It’s just like us to hate ourselves because of this.

“Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels),” the first track on Funeral, sets the mood for the present decade, biological and otherwise. Over a driving dance beat and a dense chamber-pop fog of strings, keyboards and xylophones, 26-year-old front man Win Butler warbles a fable about a boy and a girl who, one winter night, dig a tunnel through the snow from their windows to the center of town. They live there blissfully, not really missing their families until years later, when they can’t think up any human names to give their own babies. Images rush back: “But sometimes, we remember our bedrooms / and our parent’s bedrooms / and the bedrooms of our friends. / Then we think of our parents / well what the hell ever happened to them?”

Their second effort, Neon Bible, hits harder, all organ and hurdy-gurdy and reverbed hand claps. Still, like Funeral, its antique instrumentation and soupy production fit firmly into a cultural mode that so mortifies its followers precisely because we all recognize the main conceit: namely, a nearly perverse appropriation of history. At base, of course, the past in question is recent and quasi-individual; as always, today’s successful tunes are invariably made by twentysomethings eliding and extrapolating teenage mundanities into glosses significantly nobler and more tragic than the real thing. The great catastrophe of the age is that we’re too outwardly self-loathing to be unabashed solipsists and too secretly well-adjusted not to be. And thus, to the banality of our personal history we affix, for interest’s sake, the rather ahistorical material quirks of world history. No modern youth culture has ever been this interested in gramophones, zeppelins or daguerreotypes.

Call it rococo pop: In recent years, the Decemberists have turned subdivision angst into pre-Reconquista Spanish coronation songs (“Behind, in their coach-and-fours / ride the wives of the king of Moors / And the veiled young virgin, the prince’s betrothed”), while harpist-waif Joanna Newsom has requisitioned most of the Renaissance for quarter-life self-discovery (“And I can recall our caravel / a little wicker beetle shell / with four fine masts and lateen sails / its bearings on Cair Paravel”). Likewise, though our older siblings might have found the 1990’s encyclopedia pastiche of Belle & Sebastian and Neutral Milk Hotel hilariously absurdist, we happily sport those motley hand-me-downs: So far, no track in 2007 has stuck a collective chord quite as resoundingly “The Past Is a Grotesque Animal,” by 90’s holdover Of Montreal. Anyone for interwar gloom? “I fell in love with the first cute girl that I met / who could appreciate Georges Bataille.”

The wonderful and cringe-inducing ambition of Neon Bible is to give our world history the twisted grandeur of Weimar and the Inquisition and European colonization. The music still sounds like something out of the Brothers Grimm, but the fairy tales are less ponderous, more obviously topical. Mr. Butler, whose voice has deepened into an enveloping overgrown-boy timbre, pulls few punches: “I don’t want to work in a building downtown,” he notes on the jaunty “(Antichrist Television Blues),” “‘Cause the planes keep crashing two by two …. No I don’t wanna see when the planes hit the ground.” If this were more than a surface post-9/11 song, such lyrics would be unforgivably maudlin. But it’s not. If anything, “(Antichrist Television Blues)” is a post-Columbine song, a ditty admitting that our tortured ennui comes from having no reason to be as angry and tortured as youth once demanded. About two-thirds of the way in, Mr. Butler morphs into another character: “Oh! You’re such a sensitive child!” he mocks, and soon it becomes clear that the refusal to work in skyscrapers is just a dodge: “Any idea where I was at your age? / I was working downtown for the minimum wage.” Devastating.

Some of this subtlety might be lost in Neon Bible’s sheer aural bombast. “Intervention” places the listener inside a church organ’s pipes; the languid “Ocean of Noise” has a tinny melody curiously amplified like raindrops at high tide. Regrettably, the eccentric chanteuse Régine Chassagne (Mr. Butler’s spouse) is less prominent than she was on Funeral; her only lead appearance is on the first half of “Black Wave/Bad Vibrations,” a slight synth jingle that characteristically transforms into a thunderous, tumultuous Ambien lullaby.

One thing remains certain throughout: Arcade Fire is a drippingly sincere band. Yet this sincerity reveals some cynical truths. Take “Windowsill,” which could almost pass for a political anthem if its protest lines weren’t so perfectly twinned with acknowledgements of self-involved paralysis. “I don’t wanna live in America no more” is paired with “I don’t wanna live in my father’s house no more”; “World War III, when are you coming for me?” echoes “MTV, what have you done for me?” The disasters of the Bush regime are no more real in Neon Bible than medieval Japan is in the Decemberists’ recent The Crane Wife—and maybe that’s the most honest thing pop can contribute to life during wartime.

Recent press coverage suggests that the adults may be on to us, that Arcade Fire might be one of those acts that generations can rally around. But all those glowing reviews and profiles emphasize the band’s essential bigness, a rock-and-roll hubris in the tradition of golden-era U2 or Talking Heads. But the secret’s safe for now: Chastened by precocity and history classes and all the weird sexual feelings each entails, our promiscuous, melancholic smallness remains where it belongs, as understood and unspoken as the neighborhood noises of more mythical days and nights.

Jonathan Liu is a senior at Harvard concentrating in social studies.

Neon Bible: Topical Fairy Tales