The ever-growing Canadian rock outfit Arcade Fire's debut album, Funeral, was a venerable album from the soul. The lament and torture around every note was completely genuine. It was one of the most emotional albums in recent history, bringing to mind such classics as Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here, an ode to mentally-defeated founder Syd Barrett, and Eric Clapton's fruitless but blazing love for Patti Boyd (then wife of his best friend George Harrison), so terrifically translated on Derek and the Dominoes' Layla. Since Funeral, newcomers-to-fame Arcade Fire have indulged the prospect of a follow-up that has finally come to culmination this week with Neon Bible.
There's a lot of sensorial imagery here, from the string section in "Black Mirror" that sounds like a wailing police siren to the zombie-like chants of "neon bible, neon bible" on the title track. "Intervention" sounds like the band collaborated with the Phantom of the Opera, and "Keep the Car Running" has the late-night-drive feel of early Bruce Springsteen. In this one song, Arcade Fire accomplishes what The Killers couldn't do in an entire album. But the question still remains, how do you follow up an LP-length requiem for departed loved-ones? Arcade Fire founders Win Butler and Régine Chassagne saw two grandparents and an aunt pass away within a few months of one another before going to work on the debut. What direction could a sequel possibly go in?
Arcade Fire's answer is this: make it even bleaker. The mood of the album straddles the line between prevalence and doom, with a slight tilt towards the latter. "Black Wave/Bad Vibrations" is perhaps gloomier than anything on Funeral - it's melancholic without the hint of hope. That's followed by the agonizing "Ocean of Noise," which acts as the album's emotional epicenter.
Only in spots does the band veer out of focus. The 10th track, "No Cars Go," just screams "hit single," but "(Antichrist Television Blues)" sounds oddly out of place. And "My Body Is a Cage" is perhaps the closest Arcade Fire comes to pretension, blowing up Joshua Tree-era U2 sound to symphonic proportions. But it's wisely placed at the end of the album; the preceding tracks render the listener into an emotional submission that even the most festering finale could not possibly subdue.
Neon Bible is by no means stripped-down - it remains to be seen if Arcade Fire is even capable of such a prospect - but the record is slightly more reticent than its predecessor. Maybe it's because Butler and Chassagne exhausted their theatricality on Funeral, but that might be reserving undue criticism on the band's part. It's more likely that the two have found a more prudent way to channel their emotions. What's more fascinating is that in the midst of the classification of the reluctant, tortured artist, Butler and Chassagne do indeed sound tortured, but they seem to embrace their pain. The result is a direct, focused effort.
Does Neon Bible equal Funeral in quality? Not quite. Funeral had the unfortunate advantage of a tragic loss to fuel the band's fire. But if Neon Bible proves anything, it's that this is still a dark world we live in; fortunately though, this dark world also produces darkly beautiful music.