Bruce Springsteen’s Neon Bible


Has anyone else noticed that Bruce Springsteen’s Magic, likely the best-reviewed album for the 40+ rock crowd this year, uses basically the same modus operandi as Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible, likely the best-reviewed album of the year for the under-40 rock crowd (forgive me, I’m 40 on the dot, so these are the demographics I grasp). 

     Vocals that at first seem overwrought, bellowing or wailing their way through anthemic moves that seemed old two or three decades ago. Then you listen deeper and hear how for once the big emotions are earned, that for once the hearty earnestness is matched by commitment.

    Arrangements and playing that at first seem dull, gauzing over details you figure were too mundane to bother with anyway. Then you notice how it booms and/or chimes at every turn, and notice that the old rock & roll trick is in effect — steamrollering as exuberance, and if you’ve been steamrollered it doesn’t mean you can’t find cool shit preserved in the tar.

    And of course the lyrics cover most of the same ground as well, which amounts to

 figuring out how to live in and resist  Dick Cheney’s North America (with a few diversions – the young guy has figured out that because we’re physical beings that complete intimacy is impossible; the old guy has figured out that this just means he has to work harder for it). The old guy weeps and rages over dead soldiers while the young guy confronts related conundrums like the ocean rising to meet your windowsill and class warfare. If the old guy starts off with what sounds like a typical old-guy complaint  (they don’t play shit I like on the radio any more), his complaint provides its own solution: starting from its “867-5309” riff, “Radio Nowhere” reminds us how exactly it was that classic rock came to fill arenas — give it a chance and it booms like a motherfuckerl give it a chance and you’ll remember that you’re also annoyed that conglomerate radio thinks that actual DJ’s just get in the way.

         Both artists use ironic devices when the absurdism hits them in the face, but the way they get their very earnest selves across make me think that not only can rock & roll survive without irony, but that losing the irony may be key – 9/11 didn’t make irony obsolete like ironist E. Graydon Carter suggested, but the Right’s orchestrated response to it is doing its damndest to.

      For all that they’re not as funny as one would hope, they sometimes get tongue-tied but know it doesn’t matter, because they’re singing from the throat,  a sense that’s replicated in the “joyous thud” (thanks, Bob) of the  music, which is as large as they can make it without drowning out said throats.  Speaking of throats, Brendan O’Brien’s decision to filter out so much of Bruce’s gravel felt alienating at first, but I have to admit that the streamlined approach ultimately packs almost as much power as his roughness, because it matches the way the band sounds. If I can’t quite imagine what Arcade Fire would sound like “rough,” I hope we get to find out.


Also note that while Arcade Fire’s musical tradition supposedly comes out of artifice and Springsteen’s from the opposite, it’s the Jersey guy whose strings sound synthesized. Irony lives!



2 Responses to “Bruce Springsteen’s Neon Bible”

  1. 1 What I listened to in 2007: Notes « Listening Around: In the spirit of Robert Christgau
  2. 2 2007: Anthems for 2009 « Listening Around: In the spirit of Robert Christgau

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