Arcade Fire’s smash debut, Funeral (2004), was famously born from the Montreal group’s run of personal tragedy. It was shell-shocked and defiant, a wounded opus of hope through pain. For the band members’ cathartic efforts, they gained universal accolades, famous admirers and a fiercely devoted cult of fans. From this elevated platform comes a follow-up album of expanded scope: Neon Bible is a meditation on religion and despair, soldiers and sinners, media and the U.S. of A. In short, the members of Arcade Fire have moved past their own misfortunes and made an album that seeks to address the sorry state of the world at large.
The production, done by the band members themselves, is largely immaculate. Almost every track features Owen Pallett’s string arrangements, giving the album a lush richness that Funeral didn’t have. The multi-instrument swells are most often used for bombast, but there are a few moments, such as the Doolittle strum of “Ocean of Noise,” that work better for their quiet restraint. The signature instrument (from the vast menagerie) is the mammoth pipe organ found in their church-house recording facility. “Intervention” would likely be pleasantly forgettable if not for the gravity brought by ancient pipes.
I don’t think anyone can legitimately accuse the band of being mellow, but nervous, barking art-punk tracks (the ones on Funeral that drew all those Talking Heads comparisons) are completely absent from Neon Bible. But instead of St. Byrne we get a huge dash of St. Bruce: Springsteen’s chugging populism is an unmistakable influence on the album’s dreary working-class character sketches. Tracks like “Keep the Car Running” and “(Antichrist Television Blues),” a supposed takedown of Jessica and Ashlee Simpson’s dad, express the yearning constriction of small-town life and the deep desire to get the hell away. These songs are almost completely humorless, but there’s a quavering vulnerability behind Win Butler’s deep voice, a sense that each soaring chorus is sung through stifled tears. It grants the sometimes-clunky lyrics a crucial authenticity.
Closer “My Body Is a Cage” brings the cynical depictions of escape through religious faith to a surprisingly moving head. With lyrics that could be taken directly from a decades-old gospel song, Butler bemoans that he’s trapped in physical form on an Earth so wretched. Again, the vaunted pipe organ is thematically appropriate, evolving from subtle hum to melodramatic volcano as the song swells to a close. Few are the current bands that can successfully pull off such tortured sincerity. These kinds of grand emotional gestures will always draw fans when properly executed. Some Funeral devotees may be disappointed by the more straightforward approach on Neon Bible, but their numbers will likely be easily replaced.