When The Arcade Fire released their critically acclaimed, fan obsessive, epic, beautiful, strange and awe-inspiring debut Funeral, the face of indie rock changed. Hell, the face of music changed. Somehow, this curious little band from Montreal became the biggest band in the world. Ok, not really. But, somehow, they did become huge, most certainly the biggest band of their kind. Championed in blogs and ‘zines, selling out venues in minutes, The Arcade Fire even earned a spot opening for U2 on tour, which seems only fitting as they actually are the biggest band in the world. Their singles “Neighborhood #3 (The Power Out)” and “Rebellion (Lies)” were added to alt-rock radio playlists. Funeral reached the top of 2004 year-end lists, and subsequently half-decade lists. And all of a sudden, the music that endeared those who avoided the mainstream began to seep into the mainstream. The venues got bigger as time went on, but they managed to sell out in half the time.
Funeral‘s impact was so great, and its sound so magical (a term I couldn’t help but recycle from my review of that album) that nothing since has had the same impact. There have been blog sensations, even albums that may have been better (all in the ear of the beholder, of course), but still nothing that hit with the same initial emotional wallop. It was an ecstatic surprise in 2004, and three years later, a classic. Albums almost never become that legendary that quickly, but there’s something special about The Arcade Fire.
Two and a half years after their breakthrough, The Arcade Fire have emerged from a church, where they recorded their follow-up Neon Bible. As the best of follow-ups go, Neon Bible is recognizably Arcade Fire, even a similar record, musically, but make no mistake, it is a very different record than Funeral. On a melodic level, there are similarities. “Black Mirror” treads the same atmospheric and layered, yet hard-driving rock sound of “Neighborhood #1” and “Rebellion (Lies),” as does the soaring “The Well and the Lighthouse.” There’s even a re-recorded version of “No Cars Go,” from the band’s debut EP, which actually pre-dates Funeral by a year. Rest assured, they haven’t gone Kid A yet (not that I’d be complaining if they did).
Thematically, this is something altogether unlike Funeral. Where that record was brimming with wide-eyed innocence and the tear-streaked acceptance of its loss, Neon Bible is an older, wiser and far more cynical record. Funeral was a sad and beautiful record, one that found joy alongside pain, yet Neon Bible is more of an observation of a fucked up world. Its own title seems to signify the blurred lines between entertainment and religion, the sensationalism of spirituality and the exploitation of people’s most deeply felt convictions. It’s about more than this, of course, but examine this clashing of ideas, and you begin to take in the bigger picture.
“Black Mirror” opens the album with the energy and vigor of Funeral‘s most rocking tracks, yet sounding slightly darker with ascending piano and Win Butler’s own conflicted lyrics, “show me something that isn’t mine/ but mine is the only kind that I relate to.” On the quieter, brief title track, a religious cynicism permeates, Butler whispering “Oh God well look at you now/ well you lost him but you don’t know how.” One song later, on the immense, pipe-organ blaring sound of “Intervention,” Butler continues in a similar religion-inspired theme, albeit one more bleak, nearly shouting “been working for the church while your life falls apart/ singing hallelujah with the fear in your heart/ every spark of friendship and love will die without a home.” It’s a grim statement, but one backed by their most immense sound yet. Some have commented on it being `too much,’ but it’s absolutely mesmerizing in its largesse, and one of the most amazing tracks here.
“Antichrist Television Blues” rollicks along like vintage Springsteen, Butler’s voice even affecting the Boss in his prime. This track was supposedly inspired by media whore/overall creepy dude Joe Simpson, which is evident in lines like “Dear God, I’m a good Christian man/ in your glory I know you understand/ that you gotta work and you gotta get paid/ my girl’s 13 but she don’t act her age/ she can sing like a bird in a cage.” Elsewhere, “Windowsill” contains the most direct socio-political musings (“don’t wanna fight in a holy war…I don’t wanna live in America no more“), but it comes off as less contrived than it may sound. Maybe it has something to do with the gorgeous arrangement, or perhaps Butler’s voice, which is earnest as always.
Not every song addresses issues like war or religion, many of them still retaining a first hand, internal viewpoint. But even in these songs there’s a sense of dread, and more importantly, recurring aqueous imagery. The bouncy, catchy “Keep The Car Running” finds Butler singing “the same city where I go when I sleep/ you can’t swim across a river so deep.” The two part “Black Wave/Bad Vibration” declares “there’s a great black wave in the middle of the sea,” while one track later, “Ocean of Noise” depicts a chaotic sea within its title, while the sound of thunderstorms open the ornate, gothic ballad. Its bleak ballroom dance is a haunting masterpiece, while “The Well and the Lighthouse” is a catchy and single-worthy rocker, still eerie in its own right with images of voices calling from within a well and ships crashing on rocks.
Neon Bible is dark, even draining, but it’s not hopeless. With “No Cars Go” comes hope and optimism in a sort of Utopian dream. Butler and Regine Chassagne sing in harmony “we know a place where no planes go/ we know a place where no ships go,” revealing something beautiful and distant in just a few simple lines. Musically, this track is explosive, strings and horns soaring above furiously driving rhythms. Both the most lushly arranged and the hardest rocking song on the album, it knocks you flat. It may seem odd that the band chose to resurrect a song already recorded so long ago, but it creates a perfect emotional climax, and is all the more affecting in its new form. The album then comes to a close with “My Body is a Cage,” an odd yet lovely dirge that ends with Butler singing “set my spirit free.”
How Neon Bible stands up to Funeral is a tough comparison to assess, for the reason that I’ve had nearly three years to soak in the latter, while the former is still settling. As stated before, they are two very different records, and if I tend to think Funeral is just that much better, it’s only because it’s among a handful of the best albums to be released this decade. Neon Bible is nonetheless an amazing record. Emotionally exhausting and melodically intense, is a hair’s breadth from its predecessor’s greatness. I’m convinced they can do no wrong.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.