Cover Stories: Arcade Fire, ‘Neon Bible’
When John Kennedy Toole wrote his first novel The Neon Bible in 1954 at the age of 16, the notion of a glowing scripture was particularly provocative. There was the juxtaposition of ancient text and modern design, for example, but there was something else. Neon was the stuff of diners and motels, not churches. With three little words, Toole brought into focus an image of religion as vapid, crass commercialism.
Arcade Fire's Win Butler read Toole's novel, though in an interview with the A.V. Club he dismissed the replication of the book's title for the band's second album as "kind of a coincidence." It's a comment he immediately clarified: "I just jotted it down in my notebook and kept coming back to it. The song was very much off-the-cuff, written in one night and recorded the next day. Lyrically, there's a lot of stuff dealing with religion and culture, which I'm really interested in. It's an image that I kept coming back to that really felt like it was the title of the record." In other words, Toole's title evoked such a perfect mental image for what Butler was after thematically that he couldn't improve upon it.
When it came time for an album cover, the title essentially designed the artwork. There are no secrets hiding in the album's sleeve, no Easter eggs to be found. What you see is what you get: a neon Bible. For the cover art, the band turned to Tracy Maurice – an artist with whom they entrusted their debut, 2004's Funeral. Maurice explained to Billboard how she met Butler. “There was a really unique mix of artists and musicians living in Montreal at the time, so we all more or less hung around together,” she said. It was through this small network that she met the Arcade Fire frontman.
For Neon Bible, she designed a six-foot neon sculpture that flickered like a roadside sign with the fluttering pages waving passing motorists into the warm sanctuary of a nearby church. (You can watch the neon at work here.) The band planned on using the completed sign as a stage backdrop, but as Maurice told Billboard it turned out to be too fragile to take on the road.
Next, she filmed the sign in action using a 16mm film camera, then selected three frames to print and use as the cover image, creating an impression of movement but also something of an abstract image that stands on its own. With no text to guide the viewer, one might conclude the album cover's central image is some sort of ship from an ancient arcade game, lending perhaps a sort of visual pun to the album cover.
But the coolest thing about the neon sign – its animation – was lost in the static album cover. For the deluxe edition, Maurice re-imagined the cover as a lenticular image (one of those odd, plastic-covered photos that shifts when either the viewer or the picture moves). If that wasn't enough movement, the artist also designed flip-page animation for the enclosed booklets. The whole package is the kind of cheesy delight that one might find in the gift shop of a church with a neon sign.
Her artwork didn't end there. Maurice designed the sleeves for the album's singles and co-directed the video for "Black Mirror" with Olivier Grouxl. Arcade Fire projected the original 16mm film of Maurice's neon sign during the band's tour in support of the album.
The deluxe packaged earned Maurice a Juno award – the Canadian version of a Grammy. She's designed several album covers since then, the most recent being Sarah Neufeld's Hero Brother. According to her website, the artist left her post as Arcade Fire's creative director in 2009, and now works freelance from her home base in New York.