Nearly three years, roughly 500k copies sold primarily on word-of-mouth, a Grammy nomination, and countless critics’ endorsements later, there’s little room or need to expound the virtues of Arcade Fire’s debut album, Funeral, but the release of the Canadian septet’s follow-up, Neon Bible, is as good a cause as any to revisit an album that has, rightfully, been hailed as one of the decade’s best. A strict side-by-side comparison of the albums would be reductive—setting a specific benchmark against which Neon Bible should be measured is hardly fair, and discussions of levels of reverb in the production or the right balance between low-key and epic sounding songs hit a dead end pretty quickly. But looking at the two albums more broadly, what Funeral accomplished and what makes it sound as vital today as it did initially bring into perspective the ways that Neon Bible ever so slightly underwhelms.
One of the reasons that Funeral holds up to such detailed scrutiny is that its sharp thematic focus draws from the difficult emotions surrounding specific events—the deaths of two relatives, and the love affair between the band’s leaders, Win Butler and Regine Chassagne. Like the most affecting elegies, the whole of Funeral looks upon death as an opportunity to celebrate life, with the often magical-realist retelling of Butler and Chassagne’s relationship providing the most immediate and powerful source of joy worth celebrating. The enormity and the diversity of the band’s sound only reflects the scope of those emotions, making Funeral, for all its DIY origins, an album of remarkable structural sophistication.
Not only does Neon Bible retain that huge sound, but Chassagne, engineering the album with Final Fantasy’s Owen Pallett, also expands upon it in some effective, even surprising ways. The multi-tracked mandolin figures that drive lead single “Keep The Car Running,” for instance, propel the spirited getaway narrative into an abrupt collision with the muted, Leonard Cohen-esque title track. Better still is the pipe organ that merges seamlessly with distorted electric guitars and a lush orchestral arrangement on “Intervention.” “No Cars Go,” which first appeared on the band’s 2003 self-titled EP as a mid-tempo, accordion-drenched number, is reinvented here as a would-be anthem, complete with dramatic crescendos and a choral echo effect in the refrain. Indeed, the music of Neon Bible is rarely anything less than uplifting.
What the songs fail to do, though, is provide any real payoff to all of that uplift and passion. This disconnection between the structure and content of the songs on Neon Bible wouldn’t be a problem if the individual lyrics were more interesting or if the album as a whole were more focused. Instead, “My Body Is A Cage” (with indefensible lines like, “I’m standing on the stage/Of fear and self-doubt/It’s a hollow play/But they’ll clap anyway”) unfavorably recalls a bit of “poetry” from Madonna’s tour doc I’m Going To Tell You A Secret and, along with “Keep The Car Running,” comes close to the perils-of-fame self-pity that has killed many a sophomore album. Elsewhere, “(Antichrist Television Blues)” yearns to be a Bruce Springsteen song as badly as those from The Killers’ Sam’s Town, all the while telling the story of a man who, in his desperation to make his underage daughter a star, sounds curiously like Joe Simpson.
As sources of modern anxieties go, celebrity culture and the influence of religion (addressed on the title track, obviously, and also on “Windowsill”) are broad, making the emotions behind most of these songs ill-defined and distant. The two best songs, “Keep The Car Running” and “No Cars Go” share an impulse to escape, but the remainder of Neon Bible—though it does sustain a consistent tone of pessimism with its many references to black waves and rising tides and the like—doesn’t specify the from what? that would give the album greater thematic heft, nor is there a backstory to the album that could fill in the gaps. Still, if Neon Bible never coheres into a singular statement, its distinct moments of inspiration suggest that Funeral was no fluke.