By Mark Guarino
There is no question about the great expectations of the Arcade Fire.
The Montreal band seemed to come out of nowhere in 2004 when “Funeral” (Merge), their proudly chaotic debut, groomed an audience by word of mouth and impressive Internet reviews. That album was both courageous and nerdy for attempting to summon rock god grandeur on an average Joe budget. Except it worked. David Byrne and David Bowie became public ambassadors of their music, which even made its way into actual arenas when U2 used it to announce their entrance at the top of their shows.
Win Butler and his wife, Regine Chassagne, a Canadian-American couple that create their unique sound by intertwining their roots, lead the band. Butler, a Texan, gives the music its broad strokes and bold pronouncements while Chassagne is more apt to fill in the edges with a violin or a hurdy-gurdy. Although the band counts seven permanent members, there are usually more when they perform live. Every instrument from the band closet is utilized — strings, horns, drumsticks banging against motorcycle helmets — in what is best described as a grade school orchestra set loose in a circus. (The band plays three sold-out nights May 18-20 at the Chicago Theatre.)
Released last week, “Neon Bible” is a thrilling sequel and one that will likely elevate them from cult status. Unlike the Polyphonic Spree and other band collectives known for waving their precious peculiarities like wet rags run up a telephone pole, the Arcade Fire is a big band but not reliant on silly. The novelty in this music does not come from the many obvious excesses, but instead how it seems deeply woven into the anxieties of our uncertain times. Butler, who sings every note with a quiver like an early era David Byrne, is the perfect ambassador for music that rises majestically but also lurks with a heavy sense of foreboding. “World War Three, when are you coming for me?” he asks late into the album. Waiting for the answer — the conversations with god, the blind faith to persevere — is what holds this band together and makes their music compelling.
The single reference for the band could be Bruce Springsteen. “Neon Bible” layered in themes commonly associated with Springsteen such as the savage hand of self-determination. “No way of knowing/what any man will do/an ocean of violence between me and you,” Butler sings (“Ocean of Noise”). There is also the stark creepiness of dark Springsteen fables like “State Trooper.” On “Windowsill,” there is the same midnight foreboding of a man fearful of his own inevitabilities. “I don’t want to live with my father’s debt/you can’t forgive what you can’t forget/I don’t want to live in my father’s house no more,” he sings.
“Neon Bible” was partially recorded in a church and, despite the cavernous organ that gives so many of these songs their stateliness, the music sounds bound in a struggle between hope and madness. On “My Body is a Cage,” which ends the album, Butler sings over a slinky beat about feeling trapped by his own skin. Then transcendence happens — the band arises as a choir, sheets of organ drape down and drums hammer. If only all church music could be this majestic.
That same organ starts “Intervention.” But after one sustaining chord, it picks up and hooks into a pop melody, one of many blood-pumping choruses that balance boundless energy with apocryphal visions.
When a band takes chances like these they often fail or at the very least, sound mildly full of themselves. The Arcade Fire manages to avoid both. Their raw, playful and ultimately hopeful music demonstrates that passionate music may not lead to any answers, but might be an answer unto itself.