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The 10 Commandments of Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible

It's upon this foundation that the band built a sophomore album destined to last

Arcade Fire Neon Bible
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Dusting ‘Em Off is a rotating, free-form feature that revisits a classic album, film, or moment in pop-culture history.

With a near-perfect debut LP behind them, the hype prefacing Arcade Fire’s sophomore album can barely be put into words a decade later. The Canadian group seemed to fall from the sky. They sang with pure passion. They played their instruments like a beast roared inside them. They carried an urgency indie rock needed. Before Neon Bible dropped, rumors began spreading. Arcade Fire was using rare church organs on the songs! Religion-fueled lyrics were going to take the spotlight! They holed up in a refurbished church to get more organic sounds! From a fan’s point of view, Neon Bible was on track to surpass Funeral in a way only they could be capable of.

Then, it arrived. On March 6th in 2007, Arcade Fire’s long-awaited sophomore album was here and … fans were conflicted. The warm drama of Funeral that felt so improvised and fresh seemed planned, rigid, extended here. The drawn-out harmonies built for fields sounded like studio-compressed calls. Arcade Fire changed from addressing inner reflections and catharsis to external reflections and fear. But that wasn’t a bad thing.

neon bible The 10 Commandments of Arcade Fires Neon Bible

Arcade Fire’s transition was not a change, but a growth. The band worked hard on Neon Bible to fine tune their sound. The undercurrent pace that drives their material found a new reason to run forward. Accusatory themes and nervous lyrics looked at the sunset with a heart filled with apprehension and fear, but it was still a heart — it was still full of love. It is still full of love. Arcade Fire created an album that turned empathy into fuel for revolution, no matter how exasperated or downtrodden they sounded across those 11 songs.

It’s been a decade of Neon Bible morphing in sound and relevancy. To celebrate it, look back not at what it did or how it came together, but by the very unspoken rules on which it was built to last. Behold, the 10 Commandments of Neon Bible. Now, lift up your hands, lift them up to the band, for it is right to give thanks and praise.

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01. Thou shalt not have other favorite bands before me

Okay, so Arcade Fire aren’t entitled enough to assume they’re everyone’s favorite band or should be everyone’s favorite band, nor were they under that impression upon the release of Neon Bible, but the group did set themselves up for success when the sophomore LP rolled out. Within the first week of its release, Neon Bible debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, it sold nearly 100,000 copies, and it became the band’s highest-charting album. Now, it’s sold over 400,000 copies. Of course, Arcade Fire’s following releases — 2010’s The Suburbs and 2013’s Reflektor — sold more copies, but this album poised them to be in that position. They replaced childhood nostalgia with entertainment criticism. They added fuel to the lyrical fire. It became impossible to ignore their talent. When a phenomenal debut gets followed up by — once its underrated qualities come into view — an equally good LP, a musical act’s reliability finds its form. And so this gaggle of Canadians proved their purpose. What once was a band with a notable album was now a notable band with multiple albums. Arcade Fire showed consistency, consistency cultivates trust, and with trust comes loyalty. Neon Bible earned Arcade Fire the footing for fans to now call them their favorite band, free of premature hype.

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02. Thou shalt not do as you’re told

Don’t turn to religion (or any figure, for that matter) to be saved. The battle ahead won’t be won by taking a back seat. Arcade Fire ran out of the gates on Neon Bible making that much clear. “Keep the Car Running” sees a narrator fearful of a government removing him from society, but he sprints with all the energy he has, offering up his name to trick them from a greater plan to flee. The song’s unrelenting energy is pure joy, but the lyrics, most of which are vague, only talk about what’s nipping at his heels. It’s hard not to pile anti-government themes or calls for revolution onto it, especially when other tracks like “Neon Bible” address the uselessness of religion at large or “Intervention” discusses the condemnation of a military man. Arcade Fire looked at external forces and realized you must fight for yourself while also helping others if there’s any plan to succeed. Worship is useless unless you use it to energize your own call to action. Like the flickering pages of the bible on the album’s cover, Arcade Fire know there’s truth to some stories, but, like any great epic, the realism comes to life by the person reading it, not the character drawn up in ink.

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03. Thou shalt not take the name of indie rock in vain

Neon Bible hit stores the same month as Wincing the Night Away by The Shins, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank by Modest Mouse, Sound of Silver by LCD Soundsystem, and Armchair Apocrypha by Andrew Bird. A quick scan through the rest of 2007’s albums — or, if you were digging through your local record store’s “new arrivals” stock in real time, you will remember this quite fondly — shows what an iconic time it was for indie rock. The giants had yet to become giants, but they were roping their fingers around higher rungs on the ladder. Together, these artists shoehorned indie rock as the popular genre, a gradual but noticeable shift where vinyl know-it-alls and geeks who never let headphones out of an arm’s reach saw the artists they coveted becoming favorites of a larger audience. Sure, Arcade Fire were more tame compared to acts like Of Montreal or LCD, but the group was adventurous in its own way, proving there was plenty to relate to in Neon Bible beyond noticeable trends within the genre. Shit on indie rock all you want. Instead of making aspersions about their peers, Arcade Fire let the band’s image mold into the larger indie rock narrative as the world wanted it to, as weird, bulbous, and amorphous the genre — that, even now, none of us can identify with assured confidence — was. With that, they appealed to people who normally wouldn’t give a band with a dramatic moniker like theirs the light of day.

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04. Remember the Miroir Noir to keep it holy

In the final weeks of 2008, Arcade Fire released Miroir Noir, a film documenting the making of Neon Bible as well as the tour supporting it. Physical copies came out in March of 2009, but they released it digitally in the December prior as a holiday gift to fans. These types of films usually label themselves as essential viewings, but, when seen, they lack the grit or narrative to rope in casual fans. Arcade Fire trashed the typical concert film setup. “I always find live shows on film kind of boring. Even my favorite ones, I kinda zone out for most of it,” Win Butler told Pitchfork shortly after its release. “It’s just so different seeing a band in the flesh and then watching a film of it, even if you have a hundred cameras and it’s shot from every angle. There’s just a communal, visceral thing that never translates very well.” Instead of showing footage from a show in full or stringing viewers along a well-planned narrative, they offered up a frenzy of scenes, songs, and clips. It was two hands held out with bits of fuzzy memories and heartfelt moments — you know, the type of material that ends up in the “best of” recap video you pull up on YouTube when you don’t feel like watching a whole film. Few songs appear in full. Home movies appeared regularly. Fan voicemails cut in consistently, almost all of which were recorded via the promotional hotline the band set up: 1-800-NEONBIBLE. By formatting Miroir Noir as such, Arcade Fire expanded upon the overlooked gems of Neon Bible and returned care to fans. Arcade Fire kept the heart of Neon Bible and drew it out, expanding their presence beyond the disc just like they would with short films for The Suburbs and pop-up shows for Reflektor.

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05. Honor thy Organ and Dance

With a title that suggests otherwise, Funeral is ripe with celebratory moments that verge on developmental catharsis. But for all of those moments that prompt confetti and bursts of happiness like “Wake Up”, they never quite got into true dance or into instruments that lure you to the dance floor. It was Neon Bible that was Arcade Fire’s first venture into the dance as a band. “The Well and the Lighthouse”, an often overlooked number in the middle of the record, sneaks ‘80s synths into a bridge that recalls New Order, all while a percussion-heavy backbeat keeps the tempo speeding forward. Elsewhere, the band uses organ to mimic the tidal wave of volume keyboards can bring when stacked sturdily in electronic music. This era saw Arcade Fire respecting electronica in an astute manner. In fact, Arcade Fire teamed up with LCD Soundsystem for a dream tour, performing numerous dates together, in the fall of 2007. It was a tour that illuminated their ability to wiggle and, most likely, got the wheels churning for their most electronic and dance-heavy album to date: 2013’s Reflektor.

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06. Thou shalt not escape darkness

Perhaps the best part of performing in a sizable band is the feeling of unified strength. As a six-person band on record (and upwards of a 14-person band on the stage), Arcade Fire get to holster an us-against-the-world attitude that feels entirely valid, like no one can challenge their belief when so many hearts are strung together, beating to the same massive drum. Neon Bible is often described as bleak. It confronts depression and weariness. It singles out issues worth blame. Over the years, that’s cited as Neon Bible’s weak point, but that seriousness should be seen as a decision to stand tall and remain unaffected — negatively, at least — by darkness seeping into every corner around them. Régine Chassagne’s falsettos skirt over Butler’s harrowing lyrics as an intentional counterpoint, a little bird telling listeners that darkness is inevitable, sure, but hope is yours for the taking if you choose to feed it along the way. So far, Neon Bible is Arcade Fire’s only record to deal so openly with the dreariness and repetition of life like this. So when the record ends with the forlorn “My Body Is a Cage”, a real pipe organ transforming into a massive crescendo of vocal harmonies to carry the burden of responsibility in the face of fear, we’re given a final chance to acknowledge the truth: The only way to overcome darkness is to face it head on. Arcade Fire are already doing so. Will you?

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07. Thou shalt not commit adultery with mass media

As a race so fearful of technology, we fail to shun it the way we know we should. A decade ago, Arcade Fire wrote this album with a heavy focus on the burden of the entertainment industry and the ways in which we consume it. “Ocean of Noise” tackles the dilution of data (“In an ocean of noise/ I first heard your voice/ Now who here among us/ Still believes in choice?”), “Black Mirror” address the black screens we gaze into endlessly (“You can’t watch your own image/ And also look yourself in the eye”), and “Windowsill” sees paranoia unfold as a TV screen overtakes Butler’s soul (“MTV, what have you done to me?”). Technology seduces us better than any human can. Cue the irony of “Black Wave/Bad Vibrations” leaking online through file sharing before the album’s proper release. Western civilization has done little, if anything, to minimize our willingness to burn our vision staring into bright screens all day and all night. The joke continues in 2017: We listen to a song like “Black Mirror” and then crawl into bed, log onto Netflix on our laptop, and watch Black Mirror full with equal parts fear and awe. Our obsession with mass media is a relationship we know we shouldn’t maintain but continue to indulge in regularly. And so we keep feeding it just like they warned us of because, well, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

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08. Thou shalt not steal an identity

The usual progression of a band identity hangs on the frontman. There’s the singer who throws themselves in the light. The band drapes behind them as ornate decorations of the band’s mindset. Arcade Fire, on the other hand, brings personality to the forefront in a myriad of ways. Funeral saw the first step towards a multi-dimensional band, but Neon Bible emphasized this as a fact viewers had to accept. This took form in one of the band’s promo photos: a shot where they each hold up a paper printout of their own face. It’s unnerving to see — any costume that strips a person of their expressions comes hand in hand with a casual creepiness — but forced viewers to double-check who they were looking at. In hindsight, 2007 paper headshots foreshadow the giant papier-mâché heads Arcade Fire started sporting in 2013 for Reflektor. While the physical is an ironic approach to band identity, Arcade Fire didn’t want to project themselves as standout musicians. Just look at their performance for Vincent Moon’s popular Take Away Show series in Paris. The band parades through the streets, winning over the French, horns blaring, allowing fans to get up close and personal, essentially breaking down barriers between the fan and artist dynamic. Of course, this is the nature of Take Away Shows, but in combination with the masks, it shows that the time frame of Neon Bible was one that prized individuality. They embraced who they are as a band and, for what felt like the first time, the start of who they are as individuals.

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09. Thou shalt give to thy neighbor

Altruism runs in Arcade Fire’s blood. It’s an unavoidable facet of their persona nowadays, but Neon Bible was the album that introduced listeners to the band’s commitment to giving back. “No Cars Go” originally appeared on the band’s 2003 EP, but in its new form on Neon Bible, it becomes an anthem for escapism and high-speed pursuit. It’s a rally cry to keep the good fight going. They released “Intervention” as a single in December of 2006 and donated the funds to Haitian charity organization Partners in Health. On their 2008 tours in support of Neon Bible, they donated $1 from every ticket to Partners in Health. When they performed on Saturday Night Live, TiVo owners could pause the set to read what was written on Win Butler’s guitar: “sak vide pa kanpe.” The Haitian proverb translates to “an empty sack cannot stand up” — a reference to the extreme poverty its people endure. They performed at numerous free concerts supporting Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential run. Arcade Fire saw Neon Bible as a chance to use their fame for good, splitting profits not when they felt they had enough to do so, but when the time was right. Newsflash: The right time to donate funds or time is always. Arcade Fire have stayed true to that forever.

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10. Thou shalt not covet the iconic debut

Undoubtedly the strongest part of Neon Bible is the way in which Arcade Fire approached it. When you release a phenomenal, critically acclaimed, near-perfect debut full-length into the world, the pressure to follow it up with something even better is unbelievable. It’s there even if you deny it. And yet they didn’t try to out-do Funeral. Because of that, at first, Neon Bible felt a little less surprising, a little less overwhelming, a little less relatable. People bought it in hopes of crescendo-filled anthems. Instead, it was dark, it was concerned, and it was solemn. In time, Neon Bible revealed itself to be a record of slow growth, and that increase in warmth at its core gives it its dependable charm. Arcade Fire were smart to avoid re-doing the formula that made Funeral a success. By choosing a different route entirely while still carrying their voice, they made the right changes necessary to create a successful sophomore LP. It’s true that Neon Bible is often the “forgotten” album in their discography because it’s sandwiched between an out-of-the-gates phenomenon and an unexpected Grammy winner, but that doesn’t speak to its merits. They actively set aside jealousy of their own trajectory. Arcade Fire sang about losing hope in their country with a fear for the future. It may not have been what fans wanted to hear, but now, 10 years later, it certainly sounds more relevant than ever.

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