The Arcade Fire have a terrible weight of expectation on their shoulders. No band in the world would envy the precipice on which the artistic success of Neon Bible, Arcade Fire's second album, due out March 6, teeters. In the current desolate atmosphere of sophomore implosions from indie rock's former brightest stars—the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Joanna Newsom, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah—all eyes are on the one band with the potential for longevity, the promise to continually deliver, the ability to keep our hearts intact. A comparison to finding a proper husband isn't totally off the mark, except that the Arcade Fire are presently expected to love and honor not just one, but hundreds of thousands of fans.
More than any other indie rock band, the large-scale Montreal collective have connected to a widespread base of people looking for innovation, emotion, hope and creativity in their musical choices, and the band's flawless, masterful debut, Funeral, delivered all of these in spades. Upon its 2004 release, the critics went crazy coming up with new adjectives to shower upon the band; sold-out tours commenced and scalped ticket prices skyrocketed; David Bowie and Bono became high-profile admirers. Most importantly, for the next two years, defying all rules of building up and knocking down, no one appeared to get sick of the band's music; if anything, it actually sunk in deeper over time.
Listening to Neon Bible in one fell swoop is like standing dangerously close to a passing train, a miracle of machinery and engineering too incredible to comprehend until it fades out of sight, and even then, too untouchable to recreate. A distant rumble starts the album's opener, "Black Mirror," before pulling into a suffragette city of bombs, security cameras and lost languages. The floating strings, the punchy piano, the loose backup vocals—all the hallmarks of the Arcade Fire's sound are present, but the mood both musically and lyrically is resolutely portentous, and the track fades out among the crashing sounds of dramatically distant explosions.
Though the next track, "Keep the Car Running," sounds much more upbeat (a faux-rockabilly beat percolates beneath what sounds like the Cure played at 45 rpm), most of the album is weighted with sociopolitical despair. The Arcade Fire's lead vocalist and songwriter, Win Butler, spent most of Funeral singing as if he were crawling his way out of a muddy well, with the quavering desperation of one slowly grasping at an eventual return to the world. Throughout Neon Bible, his voice is calm, almost fearful, as if he's contemplating that going back into the well might not be such a bad idea.
Butler, raised a Mormon in Texas, has started to reckon his upbringing against modern times, and nowhere more pointedly so than in "Intervention," an indictment of a devout father pursuing God over the well-being of his family in a time of war. "Working for the church while your life falls apart," he clamors, "Singin' hallelujah with the fear in your heart." Driven by an overpowering church organ, the song smacks of a purpose greater than any of Funeral's dance-floor ditties about power outages in the neighborhood; at the band's five-night stand last week at Judson Memorial Church in New York City, it must have sounded especially indecorous.
This reaches a head on "Windowsill," which extrapolates the repeated phrase "Don't wanna live in my father's house no more" into three separate meanings: running away from a literal father; renouncing a heavenly father; and seceding from a national father. Over a basic folk-guitar form, splashes of effects and climbing violins rise to a strangely brief climax. "MTV, what have you done for me?" Butler demands. "World War III, when are you coming for me?"
Fans of the band's previous bombast will notice the abridged endings, the scaled-down musical themes, the clipped outros. "(Antichrist Television Blues)," stamped with spot-on Springsteen emulsion about the light of day and the minimum wage, avoids the problem completely by chopping itself off practically midsentence. At first listen, it presents a cheeky comment on the blue-collar rambling of the song's narrator, but given the pattern of the album, the notion occurs that perhaps the Arcade Fire simply didn't feel like figuring out how to end the song.
Yet the fact that the band are taking stylistic chances—and succeeding—is good fodder for fan discussions and an even better design for listening. Early modern-rock hitchhikes its way along Neon Bible's highway: there's those big, Steve Lillywhite drums; a Siouxsie and the Banshees evocation in "Black Wave"; a handful of droll asides that capture Morrissey at his driest. A re-recording of "No Cars Go" from the bands first EP is a welcome addition near the end of the record with a spellbinding snare drum pattern, à la the Smith's "The Queen Is Dead."
There are moments on Neon Bible, culled more distantly from the worldwide songbook, that are near holy—perhaps not that surprising given that the band wrote and recorded the album during a yearlong residency in a Montreal church. A standout is "Ocean of Noise," with its cocktail-lounge drums, its brooding low piano, its Spanish-flavored horns. Strip all of these sublime adornments away (along with the accelerated one-note, super-reverb guitar-picking embellishment so popular in current indie rock), and there still stands a beautiful song of bitter reckoning, like an outtake from Blood on the Tracks. Butler sings, "No way of knowing what any man will do / An ocean of violence between me and you / You've got your reasons and me, I've got mine / But all of the reasons I gave were just lies to buy myself some time."
Closing the album is "My Body Is a Cage," a chilling song of fear and yearning that Nina Simone could have nailed. Grappling the spiritual and the political together in a gospel incantation, Butler calls for redemption in "an age that calls darkness light" while the return of the booming pipe organ contributes its Carnival of Souls—like uncertainty. The album then ends, hanging on an unresolved chord, its only coda the pounding of the listener's heart.
Upon repeated plays, Neon Bible elicits ardor rather than the ennui of recognition, precisely because the Arcade Fire have done the right thing with their anticipated follow-up album: instead of tunneling further into an idiosyncratic style, they've utilized that style to fuel a meaningful content of longstanding truths. This is the modern Americana, where old bearings are reinterpreted into something new and relevant, where a strong, distinctive voice chimes in on an eternal discussion. With its charismatic statements and confident manner, Neon Bible shakes the weight from the Arcade Fire's shoulders, and poises them at the forefront of where we pin our hopes.
The Arcade Fire appear on 'Saturday Night Live' Feb. 24 and plan a two-day gig at Berkeley's Greek Theater June 1-2.