Versus is a series in which we pit selected albums against one another and offer case statements for which is superior. In our third installment, we offer up our first triple threat match pitting Arcade Fire’s Funeral, Neon Bible and 2010’s The Suburbs against one another and post the question: which do you think is the better album?
At this point, it’s difficult to think of the Best-Album-Grammy-winning, Madison-Square-Garden-selling-out juggernaut known as Arcade Fire as anything less than one of the biggest bands in the world. And I’m not just talking about publicity; their music is always epic in scope, expansive rock vistas that inevitably build up to a moment of beautiful catharsis.
Back in 2004, however, Arcade Fire was hardly so well-known. Funeral was technically their second release, but it felt like a coming-out party of the grandest order. Twinkling keys, orchestral gestures, wide-eyed lyrical visions of love and loss, and Win Butler’s timeless warble maneuvered ’round each other as though it were soundtracking a cotillion. Funeral was a record for everybody; the starry-eyed romantics, the cynical snobs, and naively curious kids like me could all find plenty to love here.
And it’s important to recall that everyone loved Funeral. It was unifying in its heartbreaking majesty, like the Sistine Chapel recorded to tape and given a Springsteen-esque guitar gloss. It was — and remains — Arcade Fire’s most personal statement. Debut albums are special because they really don’t need to reckon with the burden of expectations. Few who heard the band’s 2003 self-titled EP could have imagined the aching, heartfelt enormousness that Arcade Fire would unleash on the world the following year. The only 21st-century analogue I can think of is Franz Ferdinand’s first album, also released in 2004. In both cases, it’s not that the respective bands in question were doing anything unprecedented—they were just doing what they did extremely well, carrying a confidence that belied their inexperience.
And like Franz Ferdinand, Arcade Fire have since released a few really good rock records, but how could they over hope to match (or — gasp — exceed) the storied debut? It’s almost unfair; Neon Bible could’ve been a veritable Revolver (it wasn’t) but it still would’ve been seen as some kind of letdown. That’s because Funeral set the bar almost impossibly high; it was that rarest of all things, a perfect indie rock statement. It’s like a Möbius strip, seemingly impossible but endlessly fascinating all the same, folding in and out of itself with a swan’s grace and a sunset’s finality.
How can you even talk about this album without resorting to critical cliches? Words seem inadequately small in the face of tracks like “Wake Up” and “Rebellion.” For an album born of personal loss (with several band members having lost loved ones during its inception), Funeral is ultimately a feel-good document, equally moving as a private listening experience or as part of a party playlist. And that, perhaps, is the true source of its lasting power. In the midst of all this sadness, as you watch your carefree youth recede like a ship floating past some infinite horizon, as you remember those who died and forget those who remain alive but haven’t ever lived, as you make and break promises to yourself and your loved ones, there is room for joy and optimism. In fact, optimism is the only emotional armor that will protect you from the harsh realities of growing up.
I am reminded of the funeral scene from the Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon. Above an open casket, a video of Kaufman singing a blithe tune begins to play. “Why should any heart be lonely?” he asks, to no one in particular except, perhaps, himself. It’s an excellent question, one that Funeral answers admirably. Love thrives in our saddest and most vulnerable moments, even when we’ve lost all hope. The sun will keep shining, in other words, every time you close your eyes.
– Joshua Becker
Neon Bible (2007)
Hello, my name is Daniel Griffiths and today I’m going to present an argument on Neon Bible being Arcade Fire’s best record.
Yep, that’s right, I’m the crazy one. I didn’t even pick a short straw for this titanic battle – I chose this because I genuinely, honestly love Neon Bible far more than anything else Arcade Fire have ever recorded. At the conclusion of the 47th minute and third second the band have taken you on a thrilling ride of highs, lows, truly euphoric and inspirational sounds, delicate songs, danceable songs and thump-your-chest-in-public songs.
Neon Bible is where the music finally caught up with the lyrics. Yes, on Funeral it was great, but the spacey and foreboding atmosphere presented by the instruments directly connect to the mysterious and dark lyrics on Neon Bible. When the band want to sound jovial it’s the music that sets the scene, ditto when they want to sound epic, intriguing and inspiring. Take “Intervention” as an example: while the lyrics alone are heartfelt and emotive, the organ that backs those lyrics is simply spine-tingling, continually moving up on the intensity scale until, at the end of the song, you can’t help but feel emotionally shattered, and bruised by how powerful the song becomes. There are countless other moments on Neon Bible where the music kicks the song into another gear or down another alleyway: the musical 180-turn on ‘”Black Wave/Bad Vibrations”, the late entry of the organ on “My Body Is A Cage”, the flute (I think) on “No Cars Go” that creates that uplifting, floating feeling. Neon Bible is rife with them.
There’s also a certain grandiosity to the album that sets it apart from its two brothers. While those two are undeniably epic, it’s only in one way or another. On Neon Bible it’s turned up to eleven on everything when that quality is called for. And it’s that ability to go all-in on the big songs that allows the quieter and humbler songs to really shine through. Placing “Neon Bible” in between “Keep The Car Running” and “Intervention” isn’t just a form of respite from a sonic assault, it’s a chance to reflect and absorb the lyrics, which happen to be pretty important to the album as a whole. The same applies to “Windowsill” – sandwiched between “(Antichrist Tevelsion Blues)” and “No Cars Go” it may sound humdrum, but the lyrics are big, and they’re emphasised so much more because of Neon Bible’s shifting dynamics.
Whenever I listen to Neon Bible, I’m always comforted by the fact that it’s different. Arcade Fire were willing to try something new, which could have failed spectacularly, and I think there’s a kind-of nervous energy to the album because of that; music made by a band going out on a limb. When you look back at a band’s catalogue, there’s always an album that defies convention, moves away from the norm and stands out. Neon Bible is, and probably always will be, that album. And, you know, there’s something special about that album being your favourite, and the one you think is the best. It’s like having your own musical secret even though the band is mega-huge, because no one else goes with you on that.
I don’t want to repeat anything I’ve already said for a conclusion (you can’t just summarise Arcade Fire), so all I’ll say is; kick back, put Neon Bible on and just enjoy. And while you’re listening to it, remember that this was the album that Arcade Fire were different and moved away from their usual formula. Ain’t nothing better than that.
– Daniel Griffiths
The Suburbs (2010)
While Arcade Fire still calls Merge Records their home, The Suburbs might as well be their Green: the band’s attempt to go big without compromising the aesthetics or approach that guided them this far. This was a milestone development, and it’s not as though the Arcade Fire were previously renowned for their subtlety. Both Funeral and Neon Bible were whoppers in their own right. However, with The Suburbs, Arcade Fire consciously and carefully transitioned from one of the most cherished groups in indie to a mainstream concern. The songs here are more than sonic mammoths; they’re colossuses as large as the slice of life the album chronicles.
But The Suburbs isn’t merely a “big-sounding” album. Excavating through the walls of sound reveals a depth of introspection not found anywhere else in Arcade Fire’s catalog. The band isn’t writing about the suburban sprawl many of its listeners know and revile. The album isn’t even really about the physical buildings or residents. What The Suburbs details is the internal conflict between warm childhood memories and the post-innocence realization that what you grew up believing may now be worthless. It’s this juxtaposition that The Suburbs does so well. Where “We Used To Wait” remembers connecting with a childhood friend by letter, “Modern Man” describes the “people as numbers” unconsciousness of modern times.
Yet all this would be meaningless if the songs on The Suburbs weren’t great themselves, and the album is full of Arcade Fire’s most robust melodies and riffs. Not only does “Ready To Start” replace “Wake Up” as the group’s rockiest jam and “Suburban War” exhibit the band’s ever-increasing penchant for the slow burn, but the title track is eminently catchy and the perfect introduction to the album’s thematic crux. That’s not to mention of songs like “Month Of May” or “City With No Children,” both of which would be standout tracks for lesser artists yet are par for the course here. However, all take a backseat to “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains).” The central synth hook sinks in instantly, taking up residence in the listener’s head for days. Régine Chassagne’s vocal on the track is her strongest on record, fully capturing the desperation and struggle to find some modicum of art and beauty in the suburban sprawl.
Further distinguishing The Suburbs from the rest of Arcade Fire’s catalog is the album’s consistency. It’s very difficult to locate any obvious low point or filler. “Rococo” and “Half Light I” are probably the only contenders, and even they have strong choruses and don’t stay too long. The same cannot be said for either Funeral or Neon Bible. While “Une Annee Sans Lumiere” and “Windowsill” aren’t quite clunkers, they do break the flow on their respective albums. This compounds upon the preponderance of evidence that not only is The Suburbs their biggest and most personal album to date, but also their best.
– Jason Hirschhorn
Which of these three Arcade Fire albums do you most prefer? Drop us your vote in the comments below.