In late 2004/early 2005, The Arcade Fire’s Funeral made the biggest splash in the indie arena since The Strokes’ debut album. Reaching the top ranks, if not the top rank, in every review and year-end list, the Montreal-based musical collective formed around married pair Win Butler and Régine Chassagne, blew the roof off indie music with Funeral. Funeral was the best-selling album ever for indie label Merge Records, putting The Arcade Fire on the cover of the Canadian edition of Time Magazine, and now comes the band’s much, much-anticipated follow-up, Neon Bible.
First things first: Neon Bible is not Funeral, as its premier tracks can’t quite reach the incredible heights of its predecessor’s. Neon Bible is thankfully not some vain attempt to bottle the same lightning twice (such as with The Strokes’ less-appreciated follow-up release), but it is also not some inexplicable abandonment of past successes. The new release, as a whole, is somewhat more driving, and somewhat less orchestral (though still littered with The Arcade Fire’s trademark violins, French horns, accordions, etc. – plus pipe organ). As the two album titles would indicate, the ‘birth-death-rebirth’ cycle of Funeral has been replaced on Neon Bible with a turn more towards politics and religion.
But saying Neon Bible is not Funeral is about the only negative thing one can say about this incredible record. Neon Bible grabs the listener and carries them, starting with its two opening tracks, twin first singles “Black Mirror” (US) and “Keep the Car Running” (UK). “Mirror” has the slightly stronger grip, while “Running” is more bopping. That interplay is present throughout the release, such as on the later “The Well and the Lighthouse”.
This spirit is matched with the overwhelming, all-encompassing anthemistic quality of Funeral’s top tracks on the expansive “Intervention” and “No Cars Go”. Both are reworked versions of pre-Funeral numbers, brought into the band’s post-Funeral age. “Intervention” also displays the social activist streak on much of Neon Bible, with such lines as “Working for the church while your family dies.” That streak can be found on other tracks, such as the catchy, up-tempo almost ‘working man’s folk’ of “(Antichrist Television Blues)”, that is both fun and touching, or the haunting following song, “Windowstill”, which is driving in both beat and in spirit.
There are some minor missteps on Neon Bible, as there would have to be. Sometimes the statements can feel a little heavy-handed, like the knocks in “Windowstill” on perennial musical punching bag, MTV (though thankfully no direct Bright Eyes-style Bush-rants). There are some ill-fitting tempo changes, such as between Chassagne’s ‘Black Wave’ portion of “Black Wave/Bad Vibrations” and Butler’s ‘Bad Vibrations’ part, or in the sudden stop of “Antichrist”. The record’s concluder, “My Body Is a Cage”, is a slow, almost soul-like piece that grows into an organ dirge, and while of high quality, feels a little misplaced on the album.
But these are minor points in an album that really displays The Arcade Fire’s growth and self-assuredness, now a few years since their arrival on the scene. If Neon Bible does not have the completely ultra-repeatable tracks of Funeral, it also does not have the relatively skip-able ones, either. On first listen, Neon Bible grabs the listener, but admittedly not to the same extreme extent as Funeral. However, after a few listens all the way through, no one will be able to take this more balanced record off repeat.