Given the current political climate, it’s easy to forget just how bleak things already seemed 10 years ago. Under George W. Bush, violence in Iraq had worsened beyond measure and the Great Recession had kicked in. Artists responded accordingly, and some of 2007’s most potent records included Björk’s raging Volta and M.I.A.’s confrontational Kala, but the singular statement of its time was Arcade Fire‘s towering, thunderous Neon Bible, which debuted at Number Two on the Billboard charts. The album’s strident, anthemic songs were as deep as they were defiant, and sonically, its battle cries would be echoed on poppier records to come by Mumford and Sons and Coldplay (who were notably inspired by Butler & Co.’s onstage military garb) – arena giants who redefined their aesthetic with Arcade Fire engineer Markus Dravs.
Neon Bible savagely critiqued modern politics and celebrity culture, setting an appropriately ominous tone given that the rollout of Apple’s first iPhone – which would kick off a new wave of global techno-obsession – was mere months away. At the time of the album’s release frontman Win Butler was feeling hopeful but also wary about America’s future: “I’ve seen Barack Obama speak a couple of times, and I really like him,” he told The A.V. Club. “There’s something going on behind his eyes, and I think he’s really intelligent. Part of me just knows it’s going to be Giuliani and Hillary Clinton, which really bums me out. But part of me wants to believe that it could be Barack Obama and John McCain, and there’d be an actual debate.” (Suffice to say, two years later Arcade Fire accompanied Jay Z as musical guests at the Obama staff ball.)
But along with his concern for the country came a deep conviction in his band’s potential. “We’re trying to navigate a culture where people manufacture a lot of garbage,” he told Rolling Stone in 2007. “The goal is not to sell the most records or be the most famous. I think everybody in our band thinks we’re trying to do something that’s real and has some lasting value to it.”
So it’s not surprising that alongside Neon Bible‘s angst and despair are moments of ecstatic joy. “I think that we tried to make a record that reflected the time it was made in,” Butler told this writer during a 2007 Mojo interview. “When we got to the end of the recording process, there was a sense that we wanted to get [the album] out, because it would lose that spark of the specific time and place that it was recorded.” Butler and his wife and Arcade Fire co-pilot Regine Chassagne’s sense of anticipation about Neon Bible was palpable; asked about the feel of the album in advance of its release, Butler said simply, “It sounds like standing by the ocean at night.”
To celebrate the 10th anniversary of this mid-Aughts classic, here are 10 lesser-known facts about Neon Bible.
1. After the gigantic success of Funeral, Arcade Fire all but stopped making music.
Arcade Fire’s 2004 debut was met with a palpable buzz. Certainly it was deserved: The album delivered a rush of grief and euphoria commingled, and the band’s live shows only amplified that sensation. Fans at the group’s earliest, sold-out gigs in New York and London included the starry likes of Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson, David Byrne and Björk, and accordingly a gigantic tour followed.
“Life had become pretty overwhelming,” Butler told Mojo two years later. “We gave up our apartment in Montreal and were basically living out of a suitcase for 10 months. There was a long period after the last record came out that Regine and I did little or no writing.” It felt very strange, he said, “because the previous three years our whole life had revolved around playing in the living room of our apartment and dreaming about songs, and basically creating our own little private world with the band.
“Once you’re not in your familiar surroundings, you don’t know how to play,” Butler continued. As for he and Chassagne finding their way back to songwriting, let alone a studio, he admitted, “We didn’t really know how it’d work.”
2. In true rock & roll style, the creative breakthrough happened in the desert.
“We were in some shitty hotel in the West driving across the desert,” Butler recalled, “and I was singing in the shower and Regine started singing with me – and this song ‘My Body Is a Cage’ came out, which is probably the most fully formed song we have ever written.” The following day, Butler fleshed out the chords on a little Casio as the band members were riding across New Mexico in their tour van. As the band stopped for dinner at a little mom-and-pop Mexican restaurant, everyone went in but Win and Regine. They sat outside on the curb as the sun set, and Butler sang the song to his wife. “I just felt this huge weight being lifted,” he said. “It was like the whole momentum for the next record was contained in that moment.”
3. To make Neon Bible, Arcade Fire bought their own church.
Petite Église in Farnham, Quebec, to be precise. The 19th-century red-brick church is on the outskirts of Montreal, and it had already been converted into a coffee shop when the band made its investment in 2005 with the intention of making their studio there. That the town shared Butler’s middle name, Farnham, was a good sign (“There are no such thing as coincidences,” he told Paste). The studio conversion was, said Butler, “an insanely huge project” and more work than the band dreamed it could be, but it paid off; the band felt inspired, and, crucially, comfortable. Accordingly, most of Neon Bible was cut at the church (Arcade Fire continued to record there until January 2013, when the roof began to collapse). Further recordings were made on a huge pipe organ in a Catholic church in Montreal, and in Budapest with Michael Pärt (son of composer Arvo Pärt) who engineered the “No Cars Go” session – which also featured a military men’s choir and the Budapest Film Orchestra.
4. Neon Bible was shaped by Win Butler’s childhood nightmares – and his realization that they were becoming a reality.
“I have had these terrible dreams since I was a little kid that people are coming to get me and I have to run away,” Butler said, just before the album’s release. “There is always some weird government organization or unseen force which I don’t understand and there is this overwhelming sense of fear. I started to notice that these feelings that were so familiar to me in my dreams were starting to resonate with the climate I sense in the world. It is strange to recognize emotions that I feel when I am asleep at work in the real world.”
This feeling of alarm coincided with the California-born Butler’s coming to terms with the fact he had really left the States, to live in Canada, giving him a new perspective as an outsider. “I read that Terry Gilliam felt like all of his art was about the States once he moved to England,” Butler said, “and I can really relate to that.”
5. Legendary producer Bob Johnston was called in as a studio advisor and declared some of Neon Bible‘s songs “better than anything Lennon ever did.”
As gleamingly polished as Neon Bible sounds, the band recorded much of the record live. “We wanted the record to have the immediacy of a lot of those Sixties records cut live off the floor,” Butler enthused. “To have the freedom to take that heart of a weird little raw live band and do whatever we want with it in terms of arrangement. I think there is a real beauty in imperfection that is lost in a lot of modern recordings.” It made perfect sense, then, to recruit Bob Johnston, the legendary late musical force who produced Blonde on Blonde, Johnny Cash’s prison LPs and Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate. “We just wanted to meet him and soak up the information,” Butler said. Johnston himself elaborated to Mojo at the time: “The Arcade Fire got in touch with me a few months back. I went up to meet with them in their little church studio on the outskirts of Montreal. I just sorta hung out a couple days. Man, they played and they played. They’ll play the same song over 100 times ’til they get it right. The songs I heard have a very Beatles sound. Two or three of those songs are better than anything Lennon ever did. They’ll be monstrous.”
6. Charlie Brooker named his massively influential TV drama Black Mirror as a nod to Neon Bible‘s opening track of the same name.
The British TV drama first aired in 2011 and offered a bleak and deeply poignant vision of the near future under the influence of all-pervasive tech. The title of the show, Brooker said, was partly inspired by the Arcade Fire song; the “black mirror” itself refers to the empty screen we’re left staring at when our devices are switched off. Just as Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible grimly foreshadowed today’s political climate, Brooker’s TV show had its own share of real-life mini-future shocks – not least in its first episode, which imagined a scenario in which the British Prime Minister is made to have sex with a pig. Of former U.K. PM David Cameron’s so-called “Pig Gate” scandal in 2015, Brooker told The Guardian, “It’s a complete coincidence, albeit a quite bizarre one.”
7. The striking cover of Neon Bible won a Juno Award.
Montreal-based artist Tracy Maurice had created the scrawling curlicue artwork for Arcade Fire’s debut album, Funeral, and the crisp, luminous design for Neon Bible was a delicious contrast. “That was my favorite project to work on with them,” Maurice told Billboard. “I got to design a seven-foot neon sign that we thought the band would be able to bring on tour and hang as a backdrop at live shows, but it turned out it was too fragile to transport.” Still, the Juno Award and the satisfaction of creating one of the most iconic album covers of the time probably made up for that.
8. Arcade Fire had planned to release Neon Bible at Mardi Gras – complete with a steamboat performance – until fatigue and sickness got the better of them (again).
During Arcade Fire’s 2007 Neon Bible European tour, Butler was sick and had almost lost his voice. But this was nothing compared to what violinist Sarah Neufeld described as “the everybody sick and terrible tour” for Funeral two years prior, and the exhaustion that followed. Suffice to say, the band were circumspect about pushing themselves too hard, too soon, for Neon Bible. “We started with a lot of big ideas, some of which we were able to pull off, and some of which we had to jettison,” Butler whispered, through laryngitis, at the time. “We were originally going to have the record come out on Mardi Gras, and play on a steamboat, in New Orleans, and film it. And we did all the groundwork to do it, right up to two weeks in front of when it was supposed to happen, and then we just pulled the plug. We were like, ‘We can’t do it – it’ll kill us.’ But I really liked the idea of carnival, it had this religious tradition, when you had to give up something – [so] people would gorge themselves before Lent [started]. On the surface, there’s a lot of negative stuff about the States on the record. And I wanted to do something that was a positive expression. To me, New Orleans is the embodiment of what’s beautiful about the States.” Accordingly, in 2016, the band would stage a traditional second-line parade there in honor of the recently deceased David Bowie.
9. The title track was released with one of the first interactive music videos ever made.
Directed by Montreal filmmaker (and buddy of the band) Vincent Morisset, the video to “Neon Bible” was not only groundbreaking in terms of its UX, it was also really, really fun to play. The concept is simple enough: Butler’s face and hands appear on a black background, and you can nudge the singer’s fingers open to reveal sleight-of-hand magic objects, and hover your mouse to reveal spotlights and wisps of smoke. Those preferring a low-tech approach could also watch the band playing the song live in an elevator for Vincent Moon’s then-groundbreaking La Blogotheque video series.
10. Even then, Win Butler envisioned himself as a protest singer.
“I think this must be the most prime time for protest in the history of civilization,” he told The Guardian.” People say, we’ve already talked about it, war, Iraq, Bush – no, we haven’t, not nearly enough. You have to jump in there and make an impression. This shit is still happening, in our name, and it’s getting worse by the day. You don’t have to have an entire plan of how to withdraw from Iraq in order to say something about it. I’m not a fucking political planner, I don’t know how to bail Bush out of this shit, but it doesn’t make it any less evil. It’s as though if you are confused – you’re not meant to say anything. But you should. If you feel something is wrong, you shouldn’t be silent.”
A decade later, on the eve of Donald Trump’s inauguration this year, Arcade Fire released a glowering, minimalist protest song with gospel giant Mavis Staples, entitled “I Give You Power.” “It’s easy to get sucked into sitting on the couch and checking your news feed and watching things on CNN,” he told Zane Lowe this past February, “We’re just musicians and the only thing we have to offer is our music. For us it’s a feeling of solidarity – to not feel powerless and focus on what we can do as individuals and try to do our part.”