Fortunately, the NME might be right on the money for once Arcade Fire are the real deal. But even though Neon Bible is a thoroughly satisfying follow-up to 2004's nearly flawless Funeral, the record is not without its weaknesses. At times, Neon Bible struggles mightily to shoulder the weight of Win Butler's grandiose vision. But for the most part, the album is a bigger, bolder and darker take on the same themes that dominated Funeral, moving beyond that record's self-absorbed histrionics into more universal territory.
The album kicks off on a bleak note with Black Mirror, a dense slice of the apocalyptic pop-rock that touches on all of Butler's favorite subjects: isolation, despair, loneliness, fear, etc. But as the song marches forward and builds on a rush of symphonic swoops and crashing guitars, the expected catharsis never comes. Instead, Arcade Fire hold back, and the song slowly fades out.
Butler keeps chanting about mirrors and bombs and black stuff, but, oddly enough, he's showing (relative) restraint. If the song were on Funeral, it would have exploded. But on Neon Bible, Arcade Fire want to brood, not celebrate, and on most cuts, they pull the plug on songs before they have the chance to detonate.
That's mostly a good thing. On the record's best cuts, like Keep the Car Running, Intervention and Black Wave/Black Vibration, a sophisticated, sexier Arcade Fire hit all the emotional highs of Funeral without any of the camp that bogged down some of their earlier work. Butler trades in his Bright Eyes-style warble for a Bruce Springsteen-style warble, and he manages to do it without sacrificing any of the emotional intensity that draws people to his voice.
Without the instrumental hysteria of Funeral to cover things up, Butler's voice and lyrics take center stage. Unfortunately, Butler's lyrics are still sort of clunky and awkward; they can never quite match the scope of his band's music. Like a lot of bands this year, The Hold Steady and The Killers included, Butler not only channels Springsteen vocally, but lyrically. (Antichrist Television Blues is pretty much the best song Bruce never wrote.) While Butler's phrasing, terse and focused, sheds Springsteen's more obnoxious lyrical excesses, he doesn't quite have the Boss' knack for poetry.
Lyrical clunkers aside, Neon Bible is generally a success, even if it's not quite the slam dunk the band's most ardent fans envisioned. A reworked No Cars Go and Ocean of Noise are appropriately cinematic in scope, while the title track is more emotionally intimate than anything on Funeral, save Haiti. On some level, every track is a minor success, even if the Holy Cow! moments are few and far between.
Still, I can't help but think that as promising as this record is, it might also point toward future disaster. A couple of weeks ago, I remarked to a friend of mine that sometimes I think every Arcade Fire song is just a variation on U2's Sunday Bloody Sunday. My friend told me I was on crack, but I think the comparison is valid; the only thing that separates U2 from Arcade Fire is the nebulous notion of authenticity. For whatever reason, Arcade Fire are perceived as authentic, while the universalist pap Bono's been shilling for the past decade or so is met with heavy skepticism.
It's unfair to Arcade Fire to assume that they'll follow the same career trajectory as U2, but I think the reason people are so excited about this band is because Arcade Fire are not afraid of fame, success and universal appeal. They write big songs with big hooks, they smash guitars, they make audiences scream, shout, sweat and pump fists. But whether or not Butler can toe the tenuous line between insincerity and authenticity remains to be seen. Frankly, Neon Bible is a holdover record. It's what comes next that will define Arcade Fire's career.