Wednesday, May 9, 2007

The Faith Between Us, 2007; Arcade Fire, Neon Bible, 2006; Neutral Milk Hotel, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, 1998

This is about this year's earnest geek hipster breakthrough band, Arcade Fire, and that of 1998, Neutral Milk Hotel. I'm just an earnest geek, not a hipster, so I hadn't heard either until a forthcoming book coauthored by my friend Scott Korb inspired me to buy Arcade Fire's Neon Bible and Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. The book is The Faith Between Us, and the "Us" is Scott, an observant Catholic with Jewish tendencies, and his pal Peter Berbergal, a Jew sobered up from a drugged out mysticism. The two trade chapters of memoir about their ambivalent yet intense relationships to their respective religions. At the end of each installment, one critiques the spiritual progress of the other. It'd be Maoist, but they're kind to one another, and deservedly so -- the accuracy with which they capture earnest geekdom provides a counterpoint to their mushier spiritual questing, and the result is something smarter than ordinary memoir. Scott, for instance, imagines that a facial twitch he's afflicted by is a sign from God and takes it as cause to play the holy fool. Then the doctor tells him it's just a twitch. Some fucked up nerves. Nothing special, just something to live with. Which is to say, he isn't chosen. Berbergal, who technically is chosen, is so fried at the beginning he's imagining new religions -- scary, psychedelic, occasionally glorious truths that happen not to be true.

Both band references take place in Scott's chapters -- an epigraph from Arcade Fire and a passing mention of Neutral Milk Hotel -- but the two bands serve in my mind as stand-ins for the early religious experiments of Berbergal and the sincerity of Scott's youthful Passion. Arcade Fire is a trippy symphony of pop hooks, adolesecent beats, and the kind of orchestration typically described as "lush" and "velvety." More like plush velour. Arcade Fire is rec room wacky, which is to say, knowing in its allusions to more dangerous and difficult artists -- Nick Cave and fellow Canadian avant-pop orchestral swingers Godspeed, You Black Emperor! lurk behind Arcade's strings and dark genre camp. But they're closer in effect to Echo and the Bunnymen, with guitars by the Cure and vocals lifted from 80s U2 clones The Alarm, and even Bruce Springsteen, circa Nebraska. Which isn't bad at all, but it's a clue that things are never going to spin too far out of control with these guys. It's not that they lack the courage to push as far as Cave or Godspeed. Rather, they seem more interested in what happens when you dress pop up in strange, when you take avant-garde to the prom. Arcade Fire presents a populist freak show, a prettified death trip for the masses.

Both Arcade Fire and Neutral Milk Hotel load up their songs with God references, which is why they show up in a book of digressive spiritual questiong. But Arcade's religion, from the Neon Bible of its title (a reference to a posthumous novel by everyone's favorite bestelling crazy novelist John Kennedy Toole) to the goth vamp glory of "Ocean of Violence" is all allusion, the faith of would-be believers alienated from their nirvana by the cultural code in which they describe it. Neutral Milk Hotel's religion, meanwhile, sounds as raw as the Jesus freaking of a college kid so high on Christ that he doesn't notice that his Campus Crusade meeting has all the spiritual intensity of Kiwanis Club. The second track, for instance, "The King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. 2 & 3," opens with a slowly plunked-out seven note palindrome leading into the drawling vocal by Jeff Mangum: "I love you Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ I love you, Yes I do."

In The Aeroplane Over the Sea is said to have been inspired by a series of dreams Mangum had about a Jewish family in hiding. I believe it -- this is more grounded stuff, so to speak, than Daniel Johnston's literally insane noodling, but it's in that same family of fucked up. In Mangum's imagination, such a plaintive cry might really have belonged to Anne Frank, which is sort of dumb; but in his instrumentation, it's wall-of-sound pop, made almost reasonable by the coherence of his songs, sturdy little vessels decked out with horns and accordians in addition to the guitars and the fuzz. Listening to Johnston is a aural voyeurism. Neutral Milk Hotel -- the tightness of the band, Mangum's songwriting -- holds Mangum's crazy together, channels it toward sane. For awhile, anyway; Mangum reportedly lost it after Aeroplane, the last album the group recorded.

Neutral Milk's In The Aeroplane was re-released in 2005 with a cover blurb from Arcade Fire. Its influence is on Neon Bible is loud, but despite the fact that Arcade's perfomance is more of a shtick, deliberately derivative, it's no less provocative than that of Neutral Milk Hotel. What was weird on In the Aeroplane shows up as wit on Neon Bible.

The relationship between Scott and Berbergal with which I began this little exercise isn't so direct or simple, and I'm reluctant to push it too far lest I replicate the same cliches with which Peter Manseau, a Catholic, and I (a half-Jew) were stereotyped when we paired up to write A Heretic's Bible -- Peter the spiritual one, Jeff the smart alecky one. What's interesting about collaboration is that whatever identity you bring to the process quickly slips away from you and into the hands of your doppelganger, and vice versa. That's what happened in A Heretic's Bible, and I think that's what I see in Scott and Berbergal's book. Berbergal's the mushroom mystic, Scott's the anxious face twitcher; Scott thinks he's called by God, Berbergal sobers up; Berbergal starts a family and a heroic record collection, Scott writes family history around his tattoos.

Then there's the Catholic and Jewish stuff, which I'll leave for some later ramble. I'm not required to have a point -- this is a blog, not an essay -- nor a verdict about religious pop or pop religion, the two subjects at hand. Suffice it to say that the blurry boundaries between all parties delight me enough to speculate on origins and intentions and effects for a few hundred words. And since this is a blog, I don't need a kicker. Besides, I must get busy with a response to something Scott wrote for The Revealer, one of my day jobs.