The success of Funeral has been one of the great joys in popular music this past decade. Recorded in the midst of grieving for the loss of family members, the album from the Montreal-based Arcade Fire was almost instantly regarded as one of the best debut albums of the decade. Now, more and more critics are saying it’s one of the best rock debuts by a band. Ever.
Success like this comes with a price. While the band was basically free to record Funeral with little outside interest, every movement, recording and leak was documented by music Web sites and blogs. How do you follow-up a universally-praised rock album when the element of surprise has all but vanished? For Arcade Fire, you take advantage of the bigger budget, widen your sound and go nuts with the elaborate packaging of your album (at least for the deluxe edition).
Expectations aside, the first thing that grabs you when you listen to Neon Bible is its amazing, pristine sound. The opening title track thunders in like an oncoming train. Win Butler’s morose vocals are easy on the ears, thanks to an addictive riff by Butler and Richard Reed Parry. Just as you are predicting where the song is going to head, Butler yells out a punkish “One …Two…Three!” (in French) and Sara Neufield’s violin enters. Suddenly, your car or apartment feels like orchestra seating.
“Neon Bible” may be a bit heavy-handed in the lyrical department (“Mirror mirror on the wall / Show me where the bombs will fall”), but it’s a song that only Arcade Fire could record. Not so much for the second song, which starts a run of the band’s much-written-about new love for Bruce Springsteen. “Keep The Car Running” is vintage Born To Run-era Springsteen, from the driving, anthematic chorus to the general paranoia of having your home/city become a cell.
Bands have tried to record their own Springsteen albums and have failed -- and Arcade Fire wisely steers away from copycat territory. If their love for Springsteen is noticeable, it’s only matched by their love for the pipe organ. That instrument ushers in “Intervention,” another highlight in a very solid Side A of the album. Once again, Butler’s lyrics have a “life or death” melodrama to them, but Jeremy Gara’s drumming gives the song its emotional wallop.
With such a great first half, Neon Bible slips a bit toward the end. “(Antichrist Television Blues)” is a great, frantic rocker, but it’s the type of song where the title is the best part. The closing “My Body is a Cage” is not bad closer but the chorus, backed with Regine Chassagne’s earthy vocals, sounds vaguely similar to the chorus of The Pixies’ “Hey.” The second-to-the-last song, “No Cars Go,” is a bit better and would have probably made a better closing number.
So it’s uneven. Some of the album sounds like the band takes itself too seriously. These are hardly capital offenses, considering how many bands tank on their second album. The Arcade Fire did the risky thing in not trying to give the audience Funeral II and did the even riskier act of indulging with the luxury of a bigger budget -- a credibility killer in some indie circles. The band had to know this would be an album that would elevate them to superstar status, given their momentum going into the recording studio.
And for the most part, the album is the stuff of superstars.
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