What Arcade Fire did on Neon Bible was to make the political truly personal, and it did so in a way that the band has yet to replicate.
In the lore of Arcade Fire, Neon Bible seems to have been forgotten. It’s not the stirring, surprising triumph that Funeral was, nor does it have the scope and wild-eyed ambition of The Suburbs. (Thankfully, it also isn’t as self-indulgent as Reflektor, but that’s another conversation.) For a while, it seemed as if the doom-and-gloom of the album would be seen as nothing more than a Bush-era relic, something irrelevant in a future that seemed to be brighter than what was imagined in 2007. As we’ve all learned, that didn’t turn out the way people expected. Ten years on, Neon Bible’s wild-eyed warnings of impending oblivion seem all too close to reality, and crucially, the band offered a shred of light to pierce through the darkness, a sign that things might possibly get better.
Arcade Fire does anxiety, and does it well. Its debut addressed the anxiety of losing loved ones, combining the dread of mortality with the hope that comes with the realization that life does in fact go on. It was a brilliant concept for Arcade Fire to stumble upon so early in its career, and it tries to do something similar with Neon Bible. However, that raw anxiety is externalized, projected out onto the world surrounding it.
Win Butler makes this very clear at the end of opener “Black Mirror”: “Mirror mirror, on the wall/ Show me where the bombs will fall.” The band worries about financial scheming, perpetual war and the slow creep of the surveillance state–all within the first song. In fact, if there’s a main flaw with Neon Bible, it’s that the band tries to do too much all at once. Butler and company seems intent on encapsulating every geopolitical wrong into 50 minutes, a noble feat that has undone many a band before them. Try as it might, Arcade Fire falls slightly short of its ambitions here.
Still, the band was clearly onto something, and Neon Bible is still an impressive development from its predecessor. The band’s scope is broadened, its anthems more anthemic, pulling from arena rock as much as the arch art-rock that remains its bedrock to this day. Fans and critics at the time noted similarities with Bruce Springsteen, and hearing “(Antichrist Television Blues)” now, it’s hard to argue with that.
Where Springsteen found hope in the power of rock ‘n’ roll, Arcade Fire seeks hope in something less tangible and defined. The band is willing to admit that hope isn’t always enough, pairing the wild-eyed optimism of “No Cars Go” with the brooding, claustrophobic “My Body is a Cage.” Even so, the emotions expressed here are expressed on a massive scale, resulting in the sort of stadium rock with a personal touch that has more in common with U2 and, yes, Springsteen than it does with the detached, insular cool of your average indie band. In that sense, Neon Bible was the first step that Arcade Fire took on the road to full-fledged mainstream stardom.
Since then, the album has been almost forgotten. The outsized ambitions expressed here were, to some, more fully realized on The Suburbs, and the anxiety and misery that run through the album’s core seemed out of place in a post-Obama world, one in which the band’s core audience was drawn more towards hope than darkness. Obviously, that outlook changed faster than anyone really expected, but that’s not the only reason why Neon Bible still resonates deeper than the rest of the band’s work. The dramatic sweep of the band’s music only works if there’s a personal connection between the artist and the listener, and that can be a difficult task when things like politics, religion and worldly anxieties are the driving force of your music. What Arcade Fire did on Neon Bible was to make the political truly personal, and it did so in a way that the band has yet to replicate.