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Hear the Soldiers Sing

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Arcade Fire
Neon Bible
Merge Records
Released: March 6, 2007

Doom hangs over the new Arcade Fire album. A nameless dread, omnipresent and consuming, from the oceans and the skies, by infernal means and by human hands. A lack of control -- over our world, our countries, our destiny, even our individual lives -- and a fearful impotence that comes from knowing it preoccupy the songs of Neon Bible. The components from the band's previous album, Funeral, have been reassembled here into a more claustrophobic work. The result has fewer dance grooves than its predecessor, but stands, along with Max Brooks' book World War Z, as one of the most acute figurations of our times.

The desire to know the future is the desire for control. It is no wonder, then, that divination and prophecy play such a central part in the record, beginning with the first track, Black Mirror. Storm clouds hover over a building guitar. An implacable, moonless, darkened ocean takes on the aspect of that titular ancient scrying device. Out of the water bubbles a primeval chorus ("Their names are never spoken / The curse is never broken"). In a terrifying invocation of forces that Disney could only joke about, lead singer Win Butler wants to know "Mirror, mirror on the wall / Show me where the bombs will fall." It's a brilliant, layered line, simultaneously summing up our collective desire and reminding us that our will to know, like the Queen's, is ultimately vain.

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More exegesis after the jump!

As the song fades out, the sound of storm clouds seems to change, briefly, into static, as if to point out that a dying television screen, too, looks a lot like a black mirror, reflecting back to us the truths we want to hear. The accumulated popular media of the last century has crowded out more eldritch ideas of our ancestors. In 1937, the Mirror was still a restrained demon, the tool of an evil Queen that would murder to appease her conceit. By the time Shrek was made, it had metamorphosed into a catty fashion consultant. This confluence of images, of an ancient, deeper force, with our diluted, mediated conception of them, powers the album's quiet title track, Neon Bible. The real Bible may be under there, somewhere, buried under our electronic perceptions of it, but it's hard to discern, and what we find may not be what we want ("A vial of hope and a vial of pain / In the light they both looked the same"). In the absence of that effort, we have the Good Book filtered through televangelist sound bites and Hollywood action sequences: a plot device instead of Providence. We may not have read John, but that doesn't mean we don't have a Gospel. The words we have received are uniformly hopeless. "Not much chance for survival / If the Neon Bible is true."

Tension builds throughout the record. Windowsill is a kind of American Woman done right: a bitter lament from our closest neighbor (Arcade Fire is Canadian) that they've been drawn into America's existential crisis ("Don't wanna fight in a holy war / Don't want the salesmen knocking at my door / I don't wanna live in America no more"), while acknowledging that the problems and struggle will inevitably also become their own. The confusion between Media and Revelation becomes explicit on Antichrist Television Blues, where a "Good Christian man," pushing his daughter harder and harder as a religious singer, suddenly comes to wonder whether he has become the opposite of his intention. Similar is the soldier spoken of in Intervention. Over the expansive sweep of pipe organs is told an ambiguous story, a man crusading while everything he fights for disintegrates. The implication is clear: as nations and as people we have become powerless to do good in the world, our desire corrupted by our own, semi-conscious, conflicting motivations and the unresolved problems we have at home. If we do break free, momentarily, then like the family in Black Wave-Bad Vibrations we will be swallowed again by the deep, dark things we forgot during our moment in the sun.

If this were Funeral, the tension would break suddenly into glowing reverie. But the band seems deliberately to have decided against this, forgoing the illusory end of No Cars Go in favor of the more meditative My Body is a Cage. The pipe organs return prominently on Cage. It is part mantra, part prayer. The body of the title is more than just one man's flesh and bones. It is the time we live in, the entire preexisting structure of the world we have come to inhabit. "My body is a cage that keeps me / From dancing with the one I love," Butler repeats over and over, "but my mind holds the key."

"My body is a cage," he says. "But my mind holds the key."

"My body is a cage." Marching drums appear with the organs.

"My body is a cage," he screams, cut off by the crescendoing organ.

And then, finally, a plea. To forces outside merely human agency. Not a demand, as in Black Mirror, but a crying appeal.

"Set my spirit free. Set my body free."

There will be no quick fix, no easy answer, no simple solution to our struggles. That idea is another mediated projection, a story arc we placed over the lives of our forebears. There is only hard thought and a long, hard fight for us, just as for them. And at the end, if we are lucky, a true answer to our prayers.