The Failure of Art and Its Criticism: The Arcade Fire, Neon Bible

By Daniel Garrett

The Arcade Fire
Neon Bible
Written and Produced by the Arcade Fire
Recorded by Markus Dravs and Scott Colburn
Mastered by Frank Arkwright
Merge, 2007

The Arcade Fire consists of Win Butler, William Butler, Régine Chassagne, Jeremy Gara, Tim Kingsbury, Sarah Neufeld, and Richard Reed Parry; and the Canadian band’s discography includes Funeral and Neon Bible. I have not heard the first recording Funeral, and I do not like the second, Neon Bible. While ambitious and intelligent, there is not enough imagination or individuation of character, social detail, and musical elements, to make the album Neon Bible an artistic success or an accurate portrait of our time.

The collection of songs entitled Neon Bible has been widely welcomed, although the music and lyrics are not distinguished enough to win compliments from an objective ear. “Black Mirror, Black Mirror, I know a time is coming, all words will lose their meaning. Please show me something that isn’t mine—but mine is the only kind that I relate to,” are the words to “Black Mirror,” a song about a mirror that does not gratify dreams or vanity. The lyrics recount fear, lack of self-knowledge, gross desires, and a call for reflection that seems quite insincere. The lead male singer’s voice is plain, and the rhythm of the song is repetitive: not impressive. In “Keep the Car Running,” fear and dread lead to nightmares of city life; and the song has an old-time rock and roll rhythm that both Elvis Presley and Bruce Springsteen could lay claim to, a rhythm that provides a contrast to the dire lyrics. (The band the Killers was damned for evoking Springsteen in Sam’s Town, an album of greater beauty than Neon Bible, but, curiously, questionably, the same fate has not befallen Arcade Fire.)

It is hard to know the result of our choices, and the meaning of experience, in a world in which we all might drink the poison of our age, according to the song “Neon Bible”: in that text, “A vial of hope and a vial of pain—in the light they both looked the same. Poured them out on into the world, on every boy and every girl.” The music does not repel—it features a carefully spoken vocal performance and well-worked arrangement. With an organ in the foreground and bluntly declarative sentences, Springsteen’s influence is again in the air, and there is not much space in which to breathe, in “Intervention.” Political power, the laws of nature, private utilities, and personal insecurity are alluded to in “Intervention.” A somewhat unhappy situation is suggested, but the song seems more context than anything. The central character in the song is not fully present, despite the conflicts between religious commitment and family life that are given as important facts. The song seems more sanctimony and sentimentality than honest drama.

There is more fear in “Black Wave/Bad Vibrations,” with obvious positive frustrations of expectations (“been eating in the ghetto on a hundred dollar plate”) that do not cancel predictions of doom (“nothing lasts forever” and “there’s a great black wave in the middle of the sea for me”). The song includes bell-like accents and a heavy male voice and redundant instrumental rhythm; and the music has a nearly orchestral heft, a gesture toward the classical, toward monumentality. (It seems hypocritical to celebrate classical tendencies when they occur in rock music while rejecting the value of Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart, as some people do: the classical is accepted as decoration, rather than a complete, evolved form.) “Shadows, they fear the sun. We’ll make it if we run!” are more of the song’s lines, lyrics that echo with someone else’s past (the beloved, respected Springsteen). Certainly, by this point, by listening to the first five songs, critical doubts rise: and yet, music critics mostly gave the band and its recording lengthy encomiums.

The New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones made marvelous claims for Win Butler and the band in his eloquent February 19, 2007 (“Big Time”) commentary: “Arcade Fire speaks to several generations at once. The fervid tenor of the band’s music, always pitching toward some kind of revelation, is a quality of youth. That the songs also sound like U2’s battle calls, or the expansive rumbles of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, may account for its following among older listeners, who might otherwise be wary of musicians singing in French as well as in English, drumming on each other’s heads (prudently helmeted), and citing Haitian history. Arcade Fire earns the right to borrow or steal what it needs; the band is a torrent of energy and ideas, and its edits of the past are sometimes improvements. (Butler’s Springsteen moments involve about half as many words as Bruce would use.) Arcade Fire songs aim, without apology or irony, for grandeur, and, more often than not, they achieve it. But the voices at the heart of the band sound as though they were coming from the congregation, not the pulpit.” However, that is eloquence without much truth: first, the band has themes, but not much that can be called “ideas,” if ideas refer to coherent, insightful, and logical thoughts; second, it is rare that a lack of originality is cited as a recommendation; and, certainly, one should be suspicious whenever the student is said to better the master (sometimes that is possible, but often it is not: and, I think if I were a young musician I would be wary of critics eager to devalue and dismiss established artists: after all, young musicians grow old and hope their past work will be esteemed and their current work given a fair and sympathetic hearing). Bruce Springsteen, an artist I have admired though I do not listen to him much now, usually brings vivid metaphor, narrative logic, and moving passion to his work, an evocation of personality and situation with a concern for both desire and morality (Springsteen’s many words matter), a mastery yet beyond Arcade Fire.

Sasha Frere-Jones also wrote, “The band’s music is built around simple motifs, but the arrangements are symphonic, even if the portable orchestra of strings, horns, accordions, hurdy-gurdies, and various keyboards sounds a bit ramshackle, like a local repertory production of ‘The Threepenny Opera’ that has gone on the road. Butler frequently establishes a song with a bass line—the guitar is secondary in Arcade Fire’s generous arsenal—and a wobbly, keening voice that recalls Ian McCulloch, of Echo & the Bunnymen, especially when it leaps up in pitch and begins to break. A typical track starts small, with Butler singing over a one-chord drone, which grows into a rosy thrum that could be the product of twenty people. Those who can hear traces of U2’s triumphalism—insistent pedal-point bass lines balanced by piercing motifs octaves above—may also recognize beats and yelps lifted from the Ronettes and Talking Heads, representatives of different eras of big.” Why the enthusiasm, the sound of quiet ecstasy? Aren’t musicians expected to play instruments in a distinct and talented fashion, and expected to be able to master intricate, as well as basic, song forms? How often are simple motifs, (“ramshackle”) symphonic sounds, and a wobbly, breaking voice offered for admiration and not identified as hindrances or limitations in popular music? Where is the typical critical regard for originality (a reflexive requirement used to flagellate countless other musicians)? Why the false approval? The New York Times March 4, 2007 reporting (“One Very, Very Indie Band”) by Darcy Frey on the band’s Manhattan Judson Church performance turned description of the band’s preparation, instrumentation, and performance into an ascription of spiritual devotion, fetishism, and social ritual, as did Sasha Frere-Jones, the kind of thing that would be perceived and denounced as laughable pretension if the popular critical corps did not find themselves in agreement (with celebrity groupies such as David Bowie and David Byrne, all refusing to abdicate their quotient of cool). Frey wrote: “When the members of the Arcade Fire, a Montreal art-rock band led by Win Butler and his wife, Régine Chassagne, were trying to find studio space to record their second full-length album, they took an inventory of their instruments—the hurdy-gurdy and the accordions, but also the baby-grand and upright pianos, the organ and the harpsichord, the xylophone and the Caribbean steel drums. Then they considered the acoustics that would best suit their music—a kind of surging, post-punk rock with dense orchestrations cut through with painful and, at times, quite beautiful noise collages. Finally, they discussed their ambition to record their rousing, emotionally charged songs with the entire band playing live, though the band has seven permanent members and swells, when strings and horns are added, into an antic carnival orchestra. With the men in suspenders and vests and the women in dresses and lace fingerless gloves, and everyone employing yelps, hand claps, megaphones (for vocal distortion), motorcycle helmets (so they can drum on each other’s heads) and the occasional snare drum tossed high into the air, an Arcade Fire show has the feel of a Clash concert infiltrated by Cirque du Soleil.” It is a wonder that so many (caring, supportive) words are needed to describe something so simple: that is an example of inflation—an inflation of simple acts into meaningful gestures, an inflation of an ordinary reputation into a great one. It is also funny to have again and again a delineation of the band’s many instruments, when so much of the band’s music lacks distinct detail (and consists of ugly “noise collages,” a kind of musical mud).

Obviously, through descriptions of instruments, and even working process, as well as management of public image, there is an attempt to portray the band as special, as the essence of musicianship, as an ideal. Frey augmented his report with reminders of how the band has tried to preserve its independence and integrity (not accepting the offer to tour with the band R.E.M, refusing to play on the British television show “Top of the Pops” unless they could perform live, staying with a small record company—the usual admirable and usually short-lived clichés), all exulted before the writer Darcy Frey goes on to enumerate the nature of the band’s success—magazine covers, sell-out shows in “Dublin, Paris, Amsterdam, Oslo, Stockholm and Berlin,” etc. If the rituals are success are quite wonderful, let us be happy when they attend Beyonce, and other popular performers, as well.

Is Arcade Fire worthy of its success? The songs are the evidence that must be cited—for or against the band’s accomplishment and reputation. On the album Neon Bible, intimacy once achieved against great odds seems to be betrayed in “Ocean of Noise.” Musically, the rare lack of excess makes the song compelling. Although the song’s ambitions are perceptible, they are, in this instance, fulfilled. However, there is more musical bombast in “The Well and the Lighthouse,” possibly—regrettably—inspired by the lyrics. “I’m serving time, all for a crime I did commit,” is an admittance in “The Well and the Lighthouse,” and it is hard not to wonder if such themes—guilt and shame, penance and punishment—have a greater appeal for a society at war, or in economic trouble, even when those pressing real world matters are not named. The feeling fits the greater situation. Seduction, greed, betrayal, and transgression: “you always fall for what you desire or what you fear”—is not just an accusation or an observation, but it is likely to be a cry against human nature itself. The album—full of “fear”—lacks the full acknowledgement of the diversity of human life; and that indicates a limited perspective, a false seriousness. I can laugh at the plaudits for invention and radicality that the band has received. I imagine that some people are desperate to discover, celebrate, and be associated with something new and thus see newness, and value, where it is not; and desperate out of the desire to conform, to entertain, to prophesize. I wish the band’s music was as interesting as some of its themes in “The Well and the Lighthouse” and “Antichrist Television Blues” and certain other songs. “Antichrist Television Blues” seems to be about the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist bombings, about paranoia and vengeance and religious belief (about ignorance as a primary orientation), an orientation in which personal ambition yet shows itself, an orientation that disgusts me. Yet, it must be pointed out that the theme of “Antichrist Television Blues” is now the stuff of daily newspaper columns, television reports, and casual conversation, a theme made mundane, so maybe the music is actually equal to it.

Human beings are flesh, mind, and spirit, and most social categories and social scenes do not come close to encompassing the complexities of human individuality and possibility, but that is precisely what art and philosophy attempt. It is hard not to think of one’s own ideas and observations, and weigh them against a work said to be comprehensive or important. Other than the Iraq war, and the need to rebuild New Orleans following hurricane Katrina, I have been thinking recently about how each generation has its idols and sees them as unique, although similar figures—carrying similar meanings and even styles (freedom, glamour, etc.)—appeared in the generation before it and are likely to follow in the generation after it; and I have been thinking about the marginalization of complex intellectual discourse, and the further dumbing down of popular discourse; and about Arnold Rampersad’s disappointing biography of Ralph Ellison, a book that seems rooted in ignorance and malice, rather than knowledge and respect (an original artist was expected to mirror lesser writers, narrow ideologies), proving again that biographers, critics, and editors are often demons that haunt writers. I have been thinking about how African-Americans do surveillance on each other, a surveillance that seems to yield no insight or compassion, only gossip and judgment, mirroring the policing and punishing power of the larger society (a special problem among blacks, when much of the “communal” values often are shaped not by the best educated, but the most ignorant, as with the misogyny and violence of rap music: so signs of independence and intelligence become acts of treason). I have been thinking that loneliness encourages confession, independence, resentment, and strangeness; and thinking about how childhood molestation of children affects their adult lives, producing a paradigm of exploitation, pain, and pleasure that damages, that perverts (the affected persons can move between polarities of ascetic repudiation and sexual anarchy); and I have been thinking about the sanctification of homosexuality in western society, in the United States, so that criticism of homosexuality and homosexuals is becoming a violation of liberal faith (if one is repelled by the silliness and vulgarity of particular homosexuals one is seen as a bigot against all homosexuals: but, I can recall, still, cruel and stupid gays I have met whose personalities remain loathsome to me—and that they crudely made their sexuality the center of their identity and conversation is why I remember that as important: people who act as if one fact can define a person, such as gender, sexuality, or ethnicity, usually leave a lot out of their considerations, of themselves and others). I have been thinking that most people prefer that you be “normal” but often do not recognize or respect your wants and needs unless you are “eccentric,” and that the weak position of the poor, the lack of resources and self-determination, is responsible for much evil, and that each person has survival as a primary concern, and if society refuses to provide elegant, intelligent, and sensitive choices, that frees the individual to survive by any means necessary, beginning with the most decent, civil options available and moving down from there. I have been thinking that shame can be self-accusation and self-punishment. I have been thinking about the nearly endless pleasure and resource that are art, genuine friendship, nature, financial security, and solid scholarship: they give freedom, and make freedom worthwhile. To be dynamic in art, all those ideas and observations I have noted have to be interpreted with imagination, given color and shape, smell and texture, and given a story. I would be surprised and pleased to find more of these concerns in the songs of contemporary musicians, but each artist has his own subject and his own method and those are what must be assessed.

In Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible, the wish to avoid the pressures of commerce and media, and possibly to evade all human connections, and evidence of climate changes, are the subjects in “Windowsill.” It is easy to confuse our purity with our weakness, I think (to confuse our refusal to have our character or integrity compromised by the nearness of others with our sense that we are not strong enough to resist what they offer or insist on: to take fear for integrity). “You can’t forgive what you can’t forget,” the song states; and “Don’t wanna fight in a holy war” and “MTV, what have you done to me?” The song ends in a refusal to see, a refusal to accept sight: “don’t wanna see it at my windowsill!”

The day after the New York Times offered the Arcade Fire bouquets, March 5, youth-oriented PitchforkMedia.com reflected on the Arcade Fire’s previous album and new recording and foolishly announced, “If Funeral captured the enormity of personal pain, Neon Bible sounds large enough to take on the whole world” (Stephen Deusner, March 5, 2007). However, possibly smelling the too-strong fragrance of popular approval, or just being honest, the writer took a more skeptical approach: “Neon Bible is full of clunky lyrics, revealing Butler’s tendency to overstate and sensationalize. His rhyme schemes are sometimes too deliberate and set—and no one should be allowed to use the sort of faux-antiquated sentence construction that pops up in lines like ‘I fell into the water black’” Such honesty is the best sign for the practice of music criticism. But, StylusMagazine.com held true to that old-time religion; and wrote, “Many of Funeral’s parts are still in place on Neon Bible. Régine Chassagne and Owen Pallett’s robust string arrangements usher their songs from simple, maudlin indie roots to a cascade of largesse. Win Butler is still the pale chanteur with ratty cuffs and hot puzzles in his eyes. Their songs still move in the rhythm and cadence of expansion or implosion, but more than ever before, they strive for sheer enormity” (Derek Miller, March 5, 2007). Truth (“maudlin”) and falsity (“robust”) are mixed, bonded with garish imagination (“cascade of largesse”) and faulty language use (“hot puzzles in his eyes”).

It does not help that the band Arcade Fire is known to rehearse and perform in churches: that fact clouds perspective, provides a too-ready metaphor and pious tone. Months later, the celebration of the band continued, following a Greek Theatre concert: in the Los Angeles Times (“Gospel Fervor from Arcade Fire,” May 31, 2007), when staff writer Richard Cromelin wrote, “The musicians, constantly moving from one station to another and exchanging instruments on almost every song, were like a church choir maddened by rock ‘n’ roll, or a rock band endowed with a spiritual purpose.” Cromelin also noted the band was “one of indie rock’s biggest out-of-nowhere success stories” and its album “The Neon Bible, is a scathing appraisal of a corrupt popular culture—one the band depicts as, variously, a black mirror, a rising tide and the golden calf of the title song.” (Sometimes, we do hear what we want to hear: it is always a little frightening to be reminded of that fact.) Cromelin, writing about a live performance, wrote, “The band is fearless about hitching epic poetry to operatic pop, and it rose to that challenge Tuesday, concentrating its unconventional instrumentation into a rock grandeur. Two violinists and two horn players, supplemented periodically by accordion, hurdy-gurdy and mandolin, broadened and softened the more standard rock textures, and they’ve mastered the E Street Band’s trick of getting the place as hot as possible and then raising the temperature.” (Getting the place “as hot as possible” and then “raising the temperature,” the impossible? Does a critic actually need logic?)

What is the antidote to such deafness of perception, to such hallucinations? Listening to Neon Bible itself. “No Cars Go” is a song about escape “between the click of the light and the start of the dream”; and I can think hardly of anything kind to say about the mostly simple lyrics that are repeated again and again (“No cars go where we know”), with no increase in genuine illumination or impact; and the song’s choral arrangement, with its sound of many voices, is really the type of thing that would be called extremely pretentious ordinarily, but for which Arcade Fire has been given, now, a free pass, for its grasp at unearned—yes, unearned—significance. “My body is a cage that keeps me from dancing with the one I love, but my mind holds the key,” declares the singer in “My Body Is A Cage,” one of the album’s more liberating (though still “clunky”) statements, and the album’s last song. (I would think that the body is the only thing that makes dancing possible.) The song is not particularly original, is as derivative of past music as much else here, but the vocal performance draws the listener in, with a fragile quality that seems personal, although the musical tumult that accompanies it is the same old, same old…“I’m living in an age that calls darkness light,” it is stated; and the song ends with the demand, the incantation, “set my spirit free, set my spirit free, set my body free.”

I think of myself as a thoughtful human being with feelings and a desire for freedom. I love art and philosophy as they come the closest to telling all I think and feel about human existence; and, when they know more than I know, they enlarge my experience. I expect art and philosophy to embody beauty, thought, and truth (and see criticism as both philosophy and journalism, the elaboration of meaning and the delivery of genuine news). I expect musical art to offer freshness of experience, interpretation, and sound, and for music criticism to explore and celebrate that; and when there is a lack of freshness, I expect criticism to recognize and explain that. The failure of standards discourages quality. Dense with artistic ambition and artificial angst, the Arcade Fire’s album. Neon Bible is not one that truly breathes: it is more artifice than art; and consequently, I do not like the Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible. .

Daniel Garrett has written about music for AllAboutJazz.com, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Option, and PopMatters.com; and his commentaries on Bloc Party, Randy Crawford, Neil Young, Patti Austin, Yoko Ono, U2, The Dears, Bright Eyes, Terence Trent D’Arby, Lizz Wright, Leela James, Skye, Morrissey, Sinead O’Connor, and others have appeared on the web pages of The Compulsive Reader. Garrett’s “Iconography: Ideas, Images, and Individuals in Film, Books, and Life” was featured on Offscreen.com. He admires the criticism of Roland Barthes, Pauline Kael, and Susan Sontag, among others (Christian John Wikane of PopMatters.com, and Kandia Crazy Horse, editor of the book Rip It Up, and Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot of the radio program “Sound Opinions”). Garrett’s work has appeared also in The African, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, The Humanist, NatCreole.com, Offscreen, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today. Author contact: dgarrett31@hotmail.com or d.garrett.writer@gmail.com

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