When Montreal's Arcade Fire released Funeral in 2004, it received the kind of critical and commercial acclaim that most bands spend their entire careers trying to attain. Within a year the group was headlining major festivals and sharing the stage with U2 and New York City's "two Davids" (Bowie and Byrne), all the while amassing a devoted following that descended upon shows like sinners at a tent revival, engaging in the kind of artist appreciation that can easily turn to a false sense of ownership. On their alternately wrecked and defiant follow-up, Neon Bible, one can sense a bit of a Wall being erected (Win Butler's Roger Waters/Bruce Springsteen/Garrison Keillor-style vocal delivery notwithstanding) around the group. If Funeral was the goodbye kiss on the coffin of youth, then Bible is the bitter pint (or pints) after a long day's work. The brooding opener, "Black Mirror," with its sinister "Suffragette City"-inspired groove and murky refrain of "Mirror, Mirror on the wall/Show me where them bombs will fall," sets an immediate world-weary tone that permeates that majority of Neon Bible's Technicolor pages. As expected, those sentiments are amplified with all of the majestic and overwrought power that has divided listeners since the group's ascension to indie rock royalty, but despite a tendency toward midtempo balladry and post-fame cynicism, they're anything but dull. It's the triumphant orchestral remake of live staple "No Cars Go" and the infectious "Keep the Car Running" -- the latter sounds like a 21st century update of John Cafferty & the Beaver Brown Band's "On the Dark Side" -- that will most appeal to Funeral fans, and when the bottom drops out a minute and a half into the pipe organ-led "Intervention" and Butler wails "Who's gonna reset the bone," it's hard not get caught up in all of the dystopian fervor. "Black Wave/Bad Vibrations" and "The Well and the Lighthouse" continue the band's explorations into progressive song structures and lush mini-suites, the thunder-filled "Ocean of Noise" is reminiscent of Bossanova-era Pixies, and the stark (at first) closer "My Body Is a Cage" straddles the sawhorse of earnest desperation and classic rock & roll self-absorption so effortlessly that it demands to be either turned off or all the way up. Neon Bible takes a few spins to digest properly, and like all rich foods (orchestra, harps, and gospel choirs abound), it's as decadent as it is tasty -- theatricality has never been a practice that the collective has shied away from -- but there's no denying the Arcade Fire's singular vision, even when it blurs a little. ~ James Christopher Monger, Rovi
Track samples provided courtesy of iTunes
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