The Butler Did It
Arcade Fire's Grand Neon Bible

So you may have heard that Captain America died.

My lifelong interest in the much-maligned artform that is comic books very rarely intersects with my day job as a member of the media, but this week was one of those times. Imagine my surprise when I logged on to on Wednesday to find Steve Epting’s detailed art staring back at me, depicting Captain America riddled with bullet holes. And imagine my further surprise as the media maelstrom swirled around this “event,” desperate to fill its 24-hour news cycle.

I’m being harsh, I know. If I were a crazy conservative or loony liberal blogger, I’d probably seize on the obvious metaphor Cap’s death presents – the death of liberty, the death of freedom, etc. ad nauseam – and use it to my political advantage. And if I had 24 hours of news to generate a day, instead of about 30 column inches, I’d probably fill some of that time with Cap’s passing. But it isn’t a metaphor for anything, no matter how much they’re trying to convince you it is.

Here’s what happened, in case you don’t know. Marvel Comics has been telling this massive crossover story called Civil War for about a year now. There were seven main issues, but if you wanted to read the whole story, you needed to collect a couple hundred comics. Which I didn’t, by the way. But this is the gist: a super-hero-related catastrophe kills a bunch of people, and in response, the government passes the Superhuman Registration Act, requiring all super-powered denizens of the Marvel Universe to get licensed.

It’s a pretty paper-thin allegory for the country’s reaction to 9-11, of course, except with one major difference – this time, it leads to a big ol’ super-hero throwdown, with men and women in tights and capes beating the shit out of each other. Because that’s just what they do. Anyway, Iron Man leads the pro-registration side, and Captain America leads the anti-registration side. They have a fight, Cap loses, he’s taken to jail, and on the way out of his arraignment, he’s shot and killed by a sniper.

Now, here’s where I can separate the people who’ve read comics from the people who haven’t. The ones who have just rolled their eyes at the bit about Cap being shot and killed, and immediately thought, “Yeah, right.” This happens all the time in comics, particularly mainstream super-hero comics. (And as a side rant, comics is the only industry I can think of where stories about flying men in capes punching each other is considered “mainstream,” and stories about real people having real relationships is considered “alternative.”) There’s hardly a mainstream comic book character that hasn’t been killed and brought back to life, and some have done the resurrection game multiple times.

Hell, doesn’t everyone remember 1993, when Superman died? Like, really, well and truly died? Except for the part where they brought him back to life six months later, I mean. I’d bet money that some of you (and I’m right there with you) have the fabled Death of Superman issue (Superman #75) in the black bag with the armband, and I know hundreds of people bought those as investments. And now they’re worth nothing, because Superman’s back, and everyone who wanted Superman #75 has four of them.

Captain America #25 will be the same thing. Cap will be back in six months – the book is called Captain America, and it continues to be published, so, you know, hard to do that without Captain America. Someone else will wear the costume for a while, but a few months from now, they’ll decide they need the One, True Cap back, and you’ll find out that the man who was shot was a clone or something, and the real Cap has been ferreted off somewhere to lie low until “the right time” for his grand return.

Aren’t super-hero comics silly?

I guess what I’m saying is, don’t believe it. Marvel’s appealing to patriotism and the national mood, hoping that you’ll buy what they’re selling without questioning it too much, and they really hope you don’t remember the lies they told last time they tried to sell you the same thing. “It’s different this time,” they’re saying. “It means something. Trust us.” And they’re confident that, with the media on their side, people will take them at their word.

Wait a second. Maybe this is a metaphor after all…

* * * * *

I could stare at the cover of the Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible for hours.

It’s a simple, shifting design – an actual neon bible, with neon pages that flip as you tilt the box back and forth. If you get bored with that, you can open the box and play with the two nifty flip books, one depicting that same neon bible, the other a group of synchronized swimmers. The sleeve the CD comes in is neat, too – it’s translucent black plastic, which you can see through if you hold it up to the light. The band spent an awful lot of money on this package, and it was worth every penny – it offers tons of fun without having to turn your CD player on.

Oh, yeah, there’s also a disc with music on it included, the second full-length from this Montreal septet. Seven people in this band? That’s right, and as you might expect, their sound is appropriately huge, like an ever-expanding horizon line. Under the direction of singer/guitarist Win Butler, the group has taken giant steps toward a massive vision of towering sonic weight, with strings, horns, all manner of percussion, vocal layering, organs, pianos, and basically anything else they can find.

The result is something grand, and it just keeps getting grander. Their first full-length, Funeral, matched that big, bold sound with inward-looking lyrics about pain and death. Neon Bible, named after the other novel by John Kennedy Toole (A Confederacy of Dunces), is outward-looking, a treatise against the evils of the world, from religion to the government to all the other usual suspects. It’s less of an emotional roller coaster, but thanks to some wild production, it’s more of a musical ride.

Neon Bible opens with “Black Mirror,” a crawling, ominous dirge that lets you know right away just how much bigger the sound on this record will be. The gentle strumming that kicks it off serves as a foundation, on which the band builds layer after layer of pianos, strings and sound effects, until Butler is forced to wail atop the din to be heard. It never spins out of control, although some parts of it (and of the album as a whole) sound stuffed between your speakers, like a water balloon full to bursting.

Things get a lot more accessible and upbeat with “Keep the Car Running,” a firecracker of a song that introduces Neon Bible’s biggest influence, songwriting-wise: Bruce Springsteen. I’m not sure how to explain the recent surge in the Boss’ popularity, but between the Killers, the Hold Steady and this record, Springsteen should feel pretty good about the impact he’s had on popular music. Arcade Fire take what most everyone takes from Springsteen – a directness, a simplicity and a quest for anthemic grandiosity.

That tendency reaches its apex on “Intervention,” the first single and perhaps the most shout-to-the-sky song here. It begins with a speaker-filling organ sound, which stays for the whole song, yet somehow makes way for guitars, crashing drums, a powerful string line, a children’s choir, and Butler’s careening, pleading voice. For a guy raised on U2, it’s hard for me not to like something like this, something that so earnestly and unironically aims for life-changing, world-altering power. By the end of this track, you’re either on board or you’re not, because this is what Arcade Fire has been working towards.

The record’s not over, of course, although some of the songs in the second half deliver diminishing returns when compared with “Intervention.” Moments of heart-stopping grandeur crop up in nearly every song – check out the Twin Peaks-esque female vocals in “Black Wave/Bad Vibrations,” or the almost scary strings in “Windowsill.” And check out all of “Ocean of Noise,” a 1950s-inspired surf ballad that slowly transforms into a horn-drenched showstopper.

But oddly, Neon Bible’s high point may be a new old song – “No Cars Go” appeared on their self-titled EP from 2003, but not like this. It was always a high-energy romp, a freewheeling eruption with senseless, mantra-like lyrics (“We know a place where no cars go…”), but here it’s a technicolor wonderland, simply the most joyous piece of music I’ve heard this year. I even love the ‘80s-rock “HEY” that punctuates every few bars. It isn’t much of a song, but it is a massive release of tension, and downbeat album closer “My Body is a Cage” serves as a nice coda, putting your feet back on the ground.

Neon Bible is another step forward for Arcade Fire, a band that shows off real sonic ambition in a field that rarely applauds that sort of thing. The accolades for Funeral were so far above the reality of the album that nothing could have matched them, but thankfully Neon Bible tries for it instead of shying away from the expectation. The band produced this thing themselves, so there’s no doubt this is the direction they want to go – aching to fill an ever-wider screen, angling to be the biggest band in the world. If they can keep up the growth they’ve shown on Neon Bible, they might get there someday.

* * * * *

A couple of quick things before I go.

I owe Jeff Maxwell a debt of thanks for turning me on to No More Kings. I bought the album this week on his recommendation, and really enjoyed it. No More Kings isn’t a band, per se – it’s a project based around Rhode Island singer-songwriter Pete Mitchell and his multi-instrumentalist partner Neil Robins, and features a rotating cast of thousands.

If you’re up on your School House Rock lore, you probably already recognized their band name. (We’re gonna elect a president! He’s gonna do what the people want!) If that doesn’t tip you off to Mitchell’s direction here, the front cover will – he’s in full Karate Kid getup, doing the crane kick stance on top of a 1980s-style boom box. If you guessed that you’re going to get songs about Knight Rider and other ‘80s touchstones, go to the head of the class.

But what you may not have guessed is that No More Kings is a well-crafted, genuinely enjoyable pop record with a big, wide heart. Yeah, you get “Sweep the Leg,” all about the final scenes of the Karate Kid, and you get “Michael (Jump In),” sung from the point of view of KITT from Knight Rider, but you also get delightful songs like “Grand Experiment,” about the ol’ rat race of life, and sweet numbers like “Umbrella,” a song I’d accept from any of my favorite songwriters.

And there is one point on the record where Mitchell takes a path I hope he travels down again in the future – “About Schroeder” is a brief yet wonderful ballad about the piano-playing recluse from the Peanuts strip. (Although it is Lucy, not Sally, that has the crush on him, Pete…) This song does what songwriters like Jonathan Coulton do so well – it finds the deep emotion in its pop cultural references, allowing those who grew up with Peanuts to look at it in a way we’ve never seen it before.

But if you’re not into that, I guarantee you will laugh at the call-and-response section of “Zombie Me.” And here, check out the hilarious video for “Sweep the Leg” here.

If all goes to plan, Jeff Maxwell will be a father in just a couple of weeks. He’s one of my oldest friends, dating back to high school at Mt. St. Charles in Rhode Island, and I’m glad we’re still in touch. Thanks for the recommendation, Jeff, and congrats to you and Melis.

* * * * *

Ending on a sad note this time. I just heard about the death of Brad Delp.

Delp was the lead singer of Boston, and half the reason that band was so good at what they did. Boston gets a lot of flack for what many have described as a corporate rock sound, but man, there never was a less corporate mainstream rock band. Their main man, Tom Scholz, is a perfectionist beyond all reason, taking sometimes up to eight years (and numerous lawsuits) to finish a 40-minute album, which means we never got to hear as much of Brad Delp’s soaring, layered vocals as we could have.

But the pair did give us Third Stage, one of the finest pop albums ever made. Nearly six years in the making, the album is a masterpiece of production, with some incredible and heartbreaking songs. I wore out my 1986 cassette of that record, playing it over and over as a teenager, and it still holds up. And one of the main reasons is Brad Delp, harmonizing with himself and singing his heart out. Later Boston albums saw Delp shunted to the sidelines to make room for Fran Cosmo and Kimberly Dahme. I thought that was a shame at the time, and I think it’s even more of one now.

So long, Brad. You were one of the best.

* * * * *

Next week, Type O Negative.

See you in line Tuesday morning.