Illuminating the Manuscripts

{mosimage} Straight to the point: Neon Bible, the Arcade Fire’s sophomore album, is fabulous. What’s interesting, though, is that it’s not fabulous in ways you’d expect of a band widely hailed as saviors of rock — of both the arena and indie varieties. Nor does it sound like the record that’s been buzzed about since a widely spread Internet leak occurred in late January.

The current rap on Arcade Fire is that they have grown self-consciously epic, copping moves from U2 and Springsteen. The comparisons are not entirely inaccurate — there’s more than a hint of Springsteen’s rumblehouse swagger and U2’s expansiveness. But I hear just as much similarity to critically out-of-favor megastars R.E.M. Like theirs, Arcade Fire’s eclecticism expands the definition of rock & roll — the jangling mandolin on “Keep the Car Running,” the sawing accordion of “No Cars Go,” and multi-instrumentalist Régine Chassagne’s turn on hurdy-gurdy.

All these citations, however, miss what’s unique about the band: their modesty. It’s evident in many forms, from their lyrical aspirations to the less-than-audiophile quality of the recordings. (Their debut, Funeral, managed the feat of sounding grand in spite of its rickety sonic architecture; Neon Bible is more polished, but not by much.) What’s special about the band is how this modesty, and the anonymity granted by their extended 7-to-10-person lineup, undercuts — or, more precisely, complements — the grandeur of the music.

The late, pioneering pop critic Ellen Willis theorized brilliantly on pop iconography — what her friend Robert Christgau recently described as “the idea that the artist’s persona is their fundamental creation.” Artists of the baby-boomer generation chased this dynamic like prospectors in a gold rush. The chipper moptops of the early Beatles (hardly innocents in real life) gave way to the quote-unquote badboys of the Rolling Stones (Mick Jagger attended the London School of Economics on scholarship). Wandering Okie troubadour Bob Dylan (a Jewish college dropout from Minnesota) inspired the space-alien chameleon David Bowie (a born suburbanite).

{mosimage}By contrast, the Arcade Fire’s lead singer, Win Butler, presents a blank slate. He’s mysterious, but not in a sexy way; he presents the flat yet emotionally charged aura of a Franz Kafka character. In spite of a few gnomic, world-beating lyrics — “I’m eating in the ghetto on a hundred-dollar plate” — Butler seems less interested in addressing all of humanity than in singing lullabies to his loved ones (“If some night I don’t come home/Please don’t think I’ve left you alone,” from “Keep the Car Running”), or memorials to his grandparents (viz. the first album, Funeral), or rallying cries for his community (“Us kids know!” he declaims on “No Cars Go”). These songs are more about individual interconnections than the cult of personality. And though the music is deeply felt, beautiful and solemn, there’s little personal grandstanding or self-indulgent romanticism — unlike Bob, Bruce, Bono or Bowie.

For another big rock band, this modesty would be considered a failing; with the Arcade Fire, it’s their intention. They emulate the sonics of ’80s megastars, but subtract the towering personalities. Precedent for this evades me, but it points toward the egoless ethos of punkish collective bands such as Crass or Godspeed! You Black Emperor. Could it be that Arcade Fire’s real idols predate the superstar era? I’d bet good money that their musical inspirations include rock & roll Everyman Roy Orbison, or Santo & Johnny’s languid, ghostly instrumental “Sleepwalk.” This is a magical antidote to the grandeur-exhaustion caused by strong yet tedious contemporary albums, such as the Killers’ Sam’s Town or My Chemical Romance’s The Black Parade.

Finally, Arcade Fire are sui generis — an indie-rock and an arena-rock band, perfect for a generation skeptical of icons. More boldly, Neon Bible seems to acknowledge that the 21st century doesn’t look like an age for pop stars and political heroes (MLK, Gandhi, et al.), but more like an era of teamwork. Where did this band learn such humility? Well, not from you, Mom and Dad. No, they didn’t learn it from watching you.

That is exactly why listening to Neon Bible will make 30-something yindies feel the surge of youth, and actual young people the gush of self-empowerment. It may not work for everybody, but if you are in your teens or 20s — or even close — you’ll feel it: The Arcade Fire aren’t speaking to us; they are us.

THE ARCADE FIRE | Neon Bible | Merge

The Arcade Fire play Coachella on Sat., April 28.

Arcade Fire performing "Intervention"


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