The first song on Arcade Fire’s newest album, “Neon Bible,” is the musical equivalent of the feeling a dog must get right before a storm. Starting off with a noise that only foreshadows the expanding thunder sound that follows, this portentous crescendo is finally interrupted by the percussive minor piano chords that go on to frame the song.
Take this next to “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels),” the opening song on the band’s previous and debut album “Funeral.” Like the rest of “Funeral,” the song created a new world. The world of “Neon Bible,” however, is clearly rooted in our own. While it’s unfair to directly compare the two albums, the very nature of “Neon Bible” dictates that it can’t evoke the same sense of wonder that its predecessor did.
The disc’s sound is still recognizably Arcade Fire-esque, though this time around, their familiar melancholy is even deeper. Perhaps it’s precisely because the band has forsaken the world they imagined on “Funeral” for the real one.
“Funeral” was a sensation lauded by critics, fans, and fellow musicians—including initials twins David Bowie and David Byrne—alike. Arcade Fire could have easily slipped into any number of sophomore album clichés; they could have given into the fear of failure, or nervously tried to reproduce what worked on “Funeral.” Instead, the septet (give or take a few members) realized that they would best serve themselves and their fans if they continued to explore, rather than simply put forth variations on a theme.
On “Neon Bible,” the group explores the very visceral issue of fear; an issue made topical not only because of the world’s current bleakness, but also because of the fear associated with making a sophomore album.
The tone of the record is reflective of this central theme—many of the songs are grandiose, gothic, even fear-inspiring themselves. Recorded mostly in a 19th-century Canadian church, the setting perfectly captures the atmospheric, organ-based melodies that drive many of the album’s dense songs, such as “Intervention,” “Black Mirror,” and “My Body is a Cage.”
Due in large part to the dread seriousness of these songs, “Neon Bible” can feel like an elliptic sermon. As in “Intervention,” the fourth song on the album, questions are posed by the group, and most are unanswered. “Who’s gonna throw the very first stone? / Who’s gonna reset the bone?” frontman Win Butler quavers.
While the songs occasionally resemble sermons, they rarely feel preachy. One of the greatest improvements in “Neon Bible” is its defined, consistent tone. However, it’s also its greatest flaw. The album as a whole distinctly lacks a balance between lighter fare and the full, rich, (and often exhausting) ecclesiastical sounds of the organ-driven tracks. Even the upbeat songs are heavy—see “Black Waves/Bad Vibrations.”
This heaviness prevents the album from achieving the range of highs and lows that made “Funeral” so compelling. “Neon Bible” can be hard to listen to twice in a row, in part because it’s so determinedly somber. That one can get through repeated listens at all—especially with lyrics as bleak as “I’m standing on a stage / Of fear and self-doubt / It’s a hollow play / But they’ll clap anyway.”
For the second time, the Arcade Fire haven’t just made great songs; they’ve made a great album. “Neon Bible” gives their fans—as well as newcomers—something just as perpetually enjoyable as “Funeral.” Just be sure to take a break to recover in between listens.
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