The Arcade Fire burns out

By Peter Valelly

The Arcade Fire’s debut LP Funeral stands as one of indie rock’s shining recent moments. One of the most surprising twists in indie’s ascent to full-tilt pop domination was how the Arcade Fire’s huge popularity revealed the universal appeal embedded in their cryptic style.
While other indie bands that incorporate odd and orchestral instruments often wallow in preciousness or dull noodling, the Arcade Fire harnessed these instruments’ power and gave them the same fractured drive of indie rock’s textbook ragged guitars and drums. Through it all, lead singer Win Butler’s dark lyrics seemed as warped and profound as the music, as his winningly weary voice strained and chafed under the weight of each song’s vast sonic assemblage. The band transformed this wall of sound into huge, melodic art-rock hymns of all shapes, from the frantic pounding of “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)” to the mesmerizing “Rebellion (Lies),” an anthem somehow both fragile and massive.

In the two and a half years since Funeral’s release, indie rock has become a truly mainstream genre, and one with a more definite sound than ever — former Spin editor Sia Michel aptly described it as “smart, but tuneful and passionate rock music.”

Indie also inherited the schizophrenia that had seeped into the post-Napster musical landscape. The full-length album, the indie scene’s favored musical form, was increasingly devalued in favor of songs. An Internet-centered movement towards dilettantism was fostered within the indie community by, for example, the rise of a massive network of music blogs offering free downloads — and free opinions. While the album as a format still thrives, Funeral may stand as the last great indie rock album before the scene’s confused splintering made albums less relevant.

Into this climate the Arcade Fire has released Neon Bible, which debuted at #2 on the albums charts. It starts promisingly with the densely arranged paranoia of “Black Mirror.” Butler howls amidst a shifting, nearly psychedelic arrangement, but the song never reaches the kind of climax it deserves and that the Arcade Fire have always been so good at delivering.

“Keep the Car Running” is a folky shuffle that invokes Bruce Springsteen for the first but hardly last time on the album, and it does possess a certain urgency. Butler’s desperate yet hopeful chorus is gripping, yet his voice, great as it is, is deeply unsuited for the grand proclamations he aims for here. Moreover, both of these songs’ emotional drives seem oddly muted.

The half-triumphs of Neon Bible’s first few tracks would be excusable if the album ever moved towards more complete songs. But if tracks like “Intervention” grasp at the same ominous grandeur of the band’s debut, they use a curiously hollow new musical and lyrical language. The band has made the awkward decision to turn Funeral’s haunted emotions outward, as the band touches vaguely on today’s stifling society of war, media, and post-millennial malaise. This results in fumbling lyrics that seek to retain poetic weight while staying topical with oblique references to the Iraq War and MTV.

Sonically, too, the band seems to draw from a rigid palette, yet one quite different from Funeral’s. Though an explosive whirl of sounds colors tracks like “The Well and the Lighthouse,” this album is generally smoother, shinier, and somehow less ornate than the first.

Of course there are great moments as well, but they are rarely sustained. “(Antichrist Television Blues)” proves that the band’s new direction leaves room for flashes of idiosyncrasy, but it still feels deeply out of place for the band and wears out its welcome quickly. “My Body is a Cage,” the overwrought album closer, could have been sappy and obnoxious but is instead elegiac and disquieting. “No Cars Go,” reworked from the band’s self-titled EP, provides a jolt of their old quirkiness, and is the album’s best song.

Given these highlights, it’s tempting to claim that Neon Bible works better as a whole than it does as an assortment of songs. But as the record’s shimmering sound evokes a subtle undercurrent of U2 worship underlying the more obvious Springsteen fixation, these influences reveal the band’s desperation to make a particular kind of album at the expense of actual craftsmanship.

The Arcade Fire are striving for the album that all rock bands, especially critically and cultishly adored ones, have long been taught and expected to create: the Important Album, one with message, meaning. The Arcade Fire, it seems, didn’t trust their own stylistic urges to deliver them to the realm of Nebraska or The Joshua Tree, and it’s hard to believe they’d be at home there anyway. Hopefully they and the other indie bands in their midst will soon realize that in 2007, their smart, tuneful, and passionate songs would be well served by an injection of imagination, as well as ambitions to something more modest and nuanced than Importance.