The Arcade Fire throws fans a reverb-drenched curve ball with the challenging Neon Bible.
Considering the Arcade Fire is indie rock's reigning success story, it's to be expected that the past couple of years have produced plenty of platinum-quality memories for the Montreal septet. U2 was so knocked out by the surprise-hit 2004 debut, Funeral, that it took the collective on tour. Coldplay's Chris Martin declared the Arcade Fire to be the greatest musical act in the history of the universe (or something like that), and David Bowie has been known to guest on-stage. Sighting celebrities such as Tobey Maguire and Michael Stipe isn't unusual at gigs, and television appearances have included the highly coveted musical-guest spot on Saturday Night Live. And let's not overlook the fact that the Arcade Fire's sophomore release, Neon Bible, debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard charts, even more impressive when you consider the disc was released on grassroots American indie label Merge.
But for all the Arcade Fire has achieved, bassist Tim Kingsbury initially has trouble naming his favourite moment to date. And when, after much thought, he finally does come up with one, it somehow doesn't seem as sexy as sharing the spotlight with the Thin White Duke or hanging out after the show with Spider-Man.
"I can't pinpoint one, but when we finished recording both records that was pretty satisfying," Kingsbury says, on the line from a Chicago tour stop. "Even if there are always little things that you would change, it's nice to listen to a record when it's done and realize how much you've put into it."
If the amiable easterner isn't one to brag about the big moments, that's somehow appropriate. After all, when Funeral was released, no one expected the record to single-handedly turn Montreal into North America's preferred indie-rock mecca. Looking back, Kingsbury realizes the album took off faster than anyone in the band would have dared to dream. Nonetheless, success didn't come right away. In fact, there were days on the road when Arcade Fire founders Win Butler and his wife, Régine Chassagne, no doubt wondered why they didn't go the two-piece route. As the Polyphonic Spree has discovered, a small army of musicians might make for a don't-miss spectacle on-stage, but at the end of the night it leads to the kind of headaches that Jack and Meg White never had to worry about.
"For a while we were sleeping on people's floors, or there were eight or nine of us in a hotel room," Kingsbury says. "But I think we all had pretty much decided that we wanted to make a go of it. Everyone that was in at that point was really committed."
The Arcade Fire–which currently includes multi-instrumentalists Richard Reed Parry, William Butler, Sarah Neufeld, Jeremy Gara, and Owen Pallett–went on to tour Funeral for a year and a half. Along the way, there were shows that left no doubt that indie rock had officially crashed the mainstream, one of the biggest finding the band selling out the 4,000-seat PNE Forum. Once they were finished working Funeral, Kingsbury and his bandmates celebrated by decompressing in the cafés of Montreal, which was exploding with Pitchfork-approved acts like Wolf Parade, the Besnard Lakes, and the Stills. The next step was to buy an old Montreal church, convert it into a studio, and begin working on Neon Bible. The band would discover, however, that the combination of a new space and not having to watch the clock during the recording process wasn't necessarily a blessing.
"A lot of the songs were really fidgeted with," Kingsbury admits. "A few ended up being almost like Frankensteins. 'Black Wave' was one of them. The whole thing had to be pieced together. The first part and the second part are actually two different recordings."
Abandoning the organic warmth of Funeral, Neon Bible is often–and occasionally distractingly–drenched in postpunk-issue reverb. Main songwriters Butler and Chassagne, meanwhile, seem almost determined to challenge their legions of newfound fans. The album starts slowly and moodily, with Butler exposing his inner goth on the chugging "Black Mirror" and channelling the spirit of Ian Curtis with "Keep the Car Running". But when the going finally gets great four songs in with the almost-divine "Intervention", the Arcade Fire shows exactly why it's become the standard-bearer of indie rock; funeral-service organs, heaven-sent string swells, and Butler's drama-king tenor add up to four minutes of almost-obscene beauty. And from there, whether paying homage to vintage new wave ("No Cars Go") or updating Dylan-brand protest folk for the iPod nation ("Antichrist Television Blues"), the Arcade Fire proves Funeral was no fluke.
If Butler and Chassagne change things up musically, they also take a different tack on the lyrical side of things. Where deaths in the extended Arcade Fire family hung heavily over Funeral, Neon Bible is a decidedly more outward-looking record that tackles everything from 9/11 and its fallout to religious crazies to what seems like the impending end of civilization as we know it.
"I think Neon Bible captures a mood that you can pick up on in the world, especially if you watch a lot of TV and Fox News," Kingsbury says. "There's a definite paranoia out there right now, and the record definitely sort of looks at that. But I don't know if we're resigned to that picture. I think we're hoping that it's more a snapshot of where we're at right now."
Despite the shit that's going down around the planet, it should surprise no one that Kingsbury is an optimist. Three years ago he was toiling away as a telephone surveyor. Today he's part of the indie band by which all other indie-rock bands are measured. So if he's learning anything, it's that sometimes you have to dream, because no matter how unlikely they might be, dreams sometimes come true.
The Arcade Fire plays Deer Lake Park tonight (May 24).