The Great Rock Hope

Arcade Fire grabs the baton from Bruce Springsteen and U2.

Neon Bible by Arcade Fire

For those who haven’t been following along, rock critics have crowned a new World’s Greatest Band. While U2 has transitioned into the revered-granddaddy stage of its career, and Radiohead has essentially bowed out by getting all arty and difficult, consensus has formed around Arcade Fire, whose second album, Neon Bible, has garnered even more acclaim than its ferociously adored 2004 debut, Funeral. Arcade Fire’s members are unlikely rock heroes. They are Canadian (from Montreal) and co-ed (five men and two women, led by the husband-and-wife team of Win Butler and Régine Chassagne). There’s seven of them—nine when they play live. They sometimes sing in French. They wear unfashionably dowdy clothes—if American Gothic is your idea of goth, then Butler is a goth. Their songs make prominent use of violin, accordion, hurdy gurdy, and other instruments not typically found in the ass-kicking rock ’n’ roller’s arsenal.

But in key ways, Arcade Fire conforms to Great Rock Hope type. They have exceptional charisma and a stupendous sound. They are a gale-force live band. Their music distills decades’ worth of canonical influences—Phil Spector, Talking Heads, the Clash—into a very, very big noise: gargantuan rock symphonies full of lashing guitar lines, swooping counterpoint from strings and horns, and voices raised in wordless chorales and shouts of “Hey!” It’s IMAX-screen-sized cinematic music. Listening to Neon Bible, I keep picturing vast, terrifying landscapes, mountains rearing up behind stormy seas, gods tossing lightning bolts, that sort of thing. “Intervention” is typical, opening with a portentous pipe organ blast and skyrocketing to a ridiculously grand series of crescendos. The lyrics deal with equally large themes: religion, love, war, death. Butler sings: “Working for the church while your life falls apart/ Singing hallelujah with the fear in your heart/ Every spark of friendship and love will die without a home/ Hear the solider groan, ‘We’ll go at it alone.’ “

Arcade Fire’s embrace of grandiosity is decidedly on-trend. In rock, big is back—everywhere you turn these days, pop rigor and compactness is giving way to supersized sounds and ambitions. Tom DeLonge, who spent years delivering three-chord electroshock treatments as co-leader of the snotty little pop-punk band Blink 182, has formed has a new group, Angels and Airwaves, which strives to re-create the reverb-heavy vastness of U2-circa 1986, with unintentionally comic results. Last year, emo stars My Chemical Romance released a concept album drenched in the kind of Wagnerian art-rock not heard since Queen’s mid-70s heyday.

The most surprising manifestation of the new giganticism is found in the indie-rock cult of Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen was once an indie bête noire, but today everyone from the Killers to the great beer-soaked poets the Hold Steady are aping Springsteen’s musical cadences and open-road romanticism. (Even Joanna Newsom is getting into the act: Her forthcoming EP is called Joanna Newsom and the Ys Street Band.) Of course, the most flaming practitioner of Springsteenism—and U2ism, for that matter—is Arcade Fire. No one can fail to hear the Boss’s hemi-powered drones in the rumble of songs like “Keep the Car Running.” And Arcade Fire cribs not just the big sound but the big heart and big ego—Springsteen- and U2-style uplift, complete with messianic overtones and nary a hint of the distancing irony found in the Hold Steady or the Killers. Neon Bible’s stirring centerpiece, “No Cars Go,” is a cosmic-utopian vision of a realm where, as someone once sang, the streets have no name: “We know a place where no planes go/ We know a place where no ships go…/ Women and children!/ Let’s go!/ Old folks!/ Let’s go!”

There is a strategic logic behind the new rock bombast. Rock long ago ceded the zeitgeist to hip-hop and R & B and pop, which command the radio airwaves, the record sales, and, in the case of rap, the outlaw glamour that once belonged to rock. One of the last things a rocker can do that a rapper or pop diva can’t is make an almighty racket. Hip-hop producers have lately fashioned their own kind of symphonic grandeur, but their brittle digital edifices are no match for the walls of sound a rock band can erect. Even a human storm system like Beyoncé, harnessing the power of a sampled drum army, simply can’t roar like a bunch of weedy white kids armed with distortion pedals and a Marshall stack. In the hip-hop era, a humongous sound may be the best way left for a rock band to get the world to sit up and take notice.

This last gasp of rock triumphalism helps explain the critical adulation poured on Arcade Fire. (Disclosure: I’m one of the adoring critics—I gave Neon Bible a rave in Entertainment Weekly.) Most music writers, even those who love hip-hop, remain invested in the idea of rock’s relevance and in a heroic lineage that extends from the Beatles and the Stones down through U2 and Springsteen to the present day. Arcade Fire fits squarely into The Tradition—its fans include Hall of Famers like David Bowie, David Byrne, and, sure enough, U2.

And yet, Arcade Fire has a ragtag indie spirit that makes it feel like an underdog, even as it executes Olympian gestures copied from Bono’s and Bruce’s playbook. In part, this is because the band has no real star. Butler is the nominal frontman, but he’s not a divo. Onstage, Arcade Fire is democracy in action, with different players stepping forward to claim the spotlight and to switch instruments. At one of the band’s recent shows at Manhattan’s Judson Memorial Church, the most charismatic figures were the ensemble players: Sarah Neufeld furiously sawing at her violin at stage right or Will Butler (Win’s brother) clobbering a huge marching-band drum with a mallet, chain-gang style. This blend of scruffy indie-rock egalitarianism and classic-rock pomp has never before been so perfectly achieved. At Judson Memorial Church, even those of us who are a bit cynical about indie ideals of authenticity and community felt our hearts melt when, in their signature fourth-wall-shattering stunt, the band trundled its acoustic instruments into the crowd, formed a circle in the center of the church sanctuary, and performed a singalong version of the anthem “Wake Up,” unamplified except for megaphones mounted on mike stands. It was the ultimate demythologizing indie move: By stepping off of the stage, wading into the scrum on the floor below, Arcade Fire’s members in effect told their audience: You guys are in the band, too.

All the large-heartedness would be moot if Arcade Fire didn’t have the songs. On the new album, songwriting seals the deal—the band has a theme worthy of its epic sound. Neon Bible is a post-9/11 album, packed with images of war, ruin, and the longing for escape. At times, the protest is blunt (“Don’t wanna fight in a holy war…/ Don’t want the salesmen knocking at my door,” Butler sings in “Windowsill“); occasionally, the references are explicit (“I don’t wanna work in a building downtown/ I don’t know what I’m gonna do/ ‘Cause the planes keep crashing, always two by two”). But more often, the songs abjure sloganeering or reportage to simply catch the dreadful mood of a wartime world. Butler and company aren’t poets by any stretch of the imagination, but their occasionally inelegant lyrics capture the confusion and paralyzing terror of the moment better than almost any of the ballyhooed records released in the wake of Sept. 11, including Springsteen’s The Rising. And, of course, it’s in their magnificent, outsized music that Arcade Fire’s real eloquence lies. The band’s sonic grandiosity turns out to be, of all things, topical—a shattering sound of and for our time.