The key to all that is right, weird and nobly flawed about Arcade Fire’s second album is in the next-to-last song, “No Cars Go.” Written by the Montrealband’s founding singers, Win Butler and his wife, Regine Chassagne, “No Cars Go” — a teens-on-the-lam anthem about starting a new Eden, out where there are no roads — first appeared on Arcade Fire, a self-released 2003 EP. Onthat record, the song was a midtempo run wrapped in what sounded like a couple ofold accordions the group found gathering dust in an abandoned wilderness cabin.
The version on Neon Bible shows the difference a bigger production budget and a quantum leap in fear, everywhere you turn, can make. The basics remain: the simple,infectious melody; the singing-telegram lyrics (“Us kids know/No cars go. . . . Hey!”). But the song now takes off like an army of Harleyson a dirt track (drummer Jeremy Gara’s accents jolt the rhythm like potholes),and the arrangement is atomic melodrama — strings, brass and refugee-choir vocalsringing in Grand Canyon-like echo. Like almost everything on Neon Bible, the follow-upto Arcade Fire’s 2004 full-length debut, Funeral, “No Cars Go” is excess with a point: We are drowning in the unspeakable and running out of air andfight. If only everything else on Neon Bible made that point with the same dynamic overkill.
It’s strange enough that Arcade Fire chose to cover themselves after just tworecords. It’s stranger still that such a big band — now seven members, playinga symphony’s worth of instruments among them — can sound so distant here sooften. The reverb on Funeral was distinct but restrained, coating Arcade Fire’srousing, Balkan-dance-band jump in an early-Eighties New Wave atmosphere that perfectlysuited Butler’s neo-operatic tenor. If Echo and the Bunnymen singer Ian McCulloch is looking for a long-lost twin brother, he can start looking in Quebec.
But on Neon Bible, the reverb is so big and black that the beat becomes boom andthe orchestral garnish, arranged by Chassagne and Final Fantasy’s Owen Pallett,gets pressed to the margins. The result is a huge sound that only sparkles on theedges, leaving Butler alone in the middle, railing against rising tides, fallingbombs and the nonstop rain of shit on television like he’s singing from the pulpit of an empty cathedral.
Maybe that was the idea. Neon Bible is an aggressively gothic record, explicitlyso in the pipe organ that soars over the hunger and wreckage in “Intervention.”More intriguing are “Black Mirror” and “Black Wave/Bad Vibrations,”which somehow combine the oppressive dread on Side Two of David Bowie’s Low with the church-bells-in-the-rain reveille of U2’s Boy. “Neon Bible”is even bleaker, a soft two-minute eulogy for a generation blinded by chain-storesigns and laptop-computer glow. “A vial of hope and a vial of pain/In the light,they both looked the same,” Butler sings through whispering cellos and child-angelharmonies, like Leonard Cohen wandering through the third Velvet Underground album.
But there is determined resistance here too, a twisted faith in escape that comesthrough best when Arcade Fire hit the gas pedal. “Keep the Car Running”is a gripping chase scene — Butler on the run from some kind of gestapo — withcrisply strummed mandolins and a racing pulse. Even better is the wordy deliriumof “(Anti-christ Television Blues).” The reverb does the lyrics no favors, obscuring big chunks of the thirteen verses. But at the end of this torrent of 9/11 trauma (“The planes keep crashing, always two by two”)and blasphemous prayer (a minimum-wage-slave dad asks God to make his daughter aTV star), an avenging spirit cuts through — “I’m through being cute,”Butler snaps, “I’m through being nice” — that runs deep in Neon Bible.It’s too bad you can’t always hear it.