Set My Spirit Free - Neon Bible turns 10

Even in the beginning, the Arcade Fire were always meant for something more—something bigger. They never needed to grow into a sound; no, the sound was fully developed—bombastic, cinematic, sweeping—right out of the gate, and it’s only grown in the years since their auspicious debut album Funeral.

During the indie rock boom of 2004 and 2005, in a post-Garden State soundtrack world, my friend Kat slipped me a copy of Funeral. We were seniors in college entering into our final semester. Both she, and another friend, Colin, couldn’t stop singing the album’s praises. I listened, but at the time, it didn’t click. I was 21, and I couldn’t get beyond Win Butler’s angsty yelping.

So there it sat. A burned copy of Funeral, housed in a little paper envelope, filed away with all the other CDs I had burned copies of in my early twenties.

Ten years ago, back when my wife and I were very young, living in our first apartment together, we used to stay up late on Saturday evenings to watch “Saturday Night Live.” On an episode of the 2006-7 season, Arcade Fire were the musical guests. I was a little “eh” about it, but my wife was not really familiar with their work prior to watching their performances of “Keep The Car Running,” and an especially volatile performance of “Intervention,” which concluded with Win Butler breaking a string on his acoustic guitar and smashing it to pieces as the song ended.

She was apparently intrigued, because the next day on a trip to Target, she was moved to buy the band’s sophomore album, Neon Bible.

It took me a long time to warm up to the Arcade Fire; maybe even truly taking until the band’s epic, sprawling third effort, 2010’s The Suburbs, though there were moments on Neon Bible that grew on me. It was one of the CDs that got a lot of play in our first apartment in 2007—things we maybe played too often, alongside Boxer, and The Reminder, among others. It was something we played in the car on trips to and from the Twin Cities—always straining to hear the quiet, sluggish titular track over the sound of the car’s engine as it roared up and down the highway.

A relatively lean 47 minutes, Neon Bible is unrelenting in its efforts to convey the myriad emotions and ideas packed inside. Nearly every Arcade Fire album has been based around a concept, or central theme, and this one is no exception. While Funeral took on youth and mortality, Neon Bible takes a hard look at spirituality, the entertainment industry, and the personal desire for something larger than yourself.

The album begins ominously with the long dark shadow cast by “Black Mirror.” The song itself opens with a low rumble, before Butler eases into his foreboding lyrics about a vast darkness juxtaposed with a fear of technology. Topically, it’s something that, even though is now a decade old, is still alarmingly relevant today. It sets the tone for the dramatic catharsis of the album, as things slide into the cacophonic, driving “Keep The Car Running,” which is one of many, many powerful anthems found both on the record, and in the band’s canon.

It took me awhile to warm up to “Intervention.” It’s the contrast between the starkness in the lyrics with the overpowering arrangement that still makes room for small slices of whimsy—the chimes that punctuate try to break through the tension and drama created by lines like “Who’s gonna re-set the bone, walkin’ with your head in a sling,” and “Workin’ for the church while your life falls apart,” which itself includes a suffix of cascading back up vocals.

“Black Wave/Bad Vibrations” was, and still is, a bit of a head scratcher. I remember that when it would come on in the car during our initial listens, my wife and I were both confused by the cheerful sounding, 80s pop inspired first half (a sound that Arcade Fire would explore again on The Suburbs), and then sudden segue into the song’s trudging, downcast second section. It also, whether intentional or not, ushers in a slower portion of the record, with “Ocean of Noise” bringing the pacing of the album down.

The pacing of Neon Bible is interesting, because it is structured in a sense that it seems to want to build up to something before crashing back down momentarily. The lull caused by “Ocean of Noise” is jolted back to life with the pounding double shot of “The Well and The Lighthouse,” and maybe the most desperate song on the album, and possibly one of the most connected to the themes, “(Antichrist Television Blues),” a song that finds Butler breathlessly rallying against the beliefs he (or a character central to the conceit of the album) has held so closely.

It’s the final two songs on Neon Bible that are probably the most impressive. “No Cars Go,” a song that originally appeared on the band’s self-titled 2003 EP, was given new life in this form. The longest song on the record, it also becomes a rare moment of transcendental magic from the band—it’s the kind of song that is self-aware enough to believe in itself, and despite just how big it gets, it never collapses under its own weight and ambitions. A simple meditation on the idea of wanting something better, there’s a hopefulness to it that the band would again revisit on The Suburbs.

You’d think a song this gigantic in scope would be the perfect closing track for the album; but it isn’t.

Arriving as an epilogue of sorts—the same way “Motion Picture Soundtrack” serves as an epilogue to Kid A, “My Body is A Cage” returns to the foreboding and ominous organ drones that began the album. The song lumbers along at a dirge, with Butler and the band conjuring up all the theatricality they have left in them, really letting it build up and rip during the refrain of the song.

Lyrically, it blurs the line between the spiritually leaning narrative that has been tucked in throughout the album, with Butler’s own self-aware songwriting tendencies. “Set my spirit free,” he pleas as the song careens towards the end. “Set my body free.”

While Funeral cemented the band’s status as critical darlings and forerunners of the “indie” music movement, Neon Bible broke the band into the mainstream, making them household names—a level that they’ve been able to maintain over the course of the last decade.

While they overcame the dreaded sophomore slump with Neon Bible—something you maybe cannot say for some of their peers, I hesitate to say that it’s an “important” album; at least for me personally. Prior to listening to it as a refresher for writing this piece, I cannot recall the last time I played it for leisure. It’s by no means a “fun” record, just simply based on how dark and heavy handed it is. However, some of the band’s best-loved songs are included on this album, and something like “No Cars Go” has aged amazingly well.

Despite being something I would deem “unimportant” to me, it was at one time an album I listened to a lot, and it made enough of an impact on me that, at the beginning of the year, when I was thinking of albums celebrating anniversaries this year, it was the first one that came to mind (I mean, aside from OK Computer.)

Neon Bible is representative of a different time. I was in my early 20s, we were living in a tiny, one-bedroom apartment, working mundane office jobs, and finding any excuse to leave town on the weekends. Like all Arcade Fire albums, there’s an urgency and immediacy that still resonates with these songs. While Funeral looked at the fragility of youth that turns into an awareness about mortality, and The Suburbs took on adulthood, Neon Bible is the sound of someone young, possibly hopeful, bracing themselves for something larger to come along in the future.