The Arcade Fire had a pretty good run with Funeral. Everyone and their too-cool friends were jamming out to that disc non-stop a few years ago. Now they're back with an album titled after a book neither you nor I have read. Is it any good? I guess that's subjective.
The problems this band had with Funeral carry over to Neon Bible as well, just on a much grander scale. Most songs from the first album sounded a bit too murky and just as flat as Metallica's And Justice for All..., and the same can be said for a variety of tracks on this one too. The Arcade Fire, for as many members and as much energy they have live, have an impeccable talent to blah their way through most of the songs on an album. The group is obviously passionate about their music, but I don't feel like it always gets effectively translated into the recording.
But my biggest complaint has been addressed. The arrangement, while intricate, seemed too sparse on Funeral, which doesn't sit well with my innards when most songs are five to six minutes long. On the opener to Neon Bible, "Black Mirror," Win and crew push their downplayed production with extremely well-arranged strings and timpani thundering in the background. "Keep the Car Running" continues with more strings but shifts upbeat and positive with a Springsteen - "Dancing in the Dark" drum beat. And even the title track that follows, the bleak, nearly whispered "Neon Bible" knows its place, as its empty simple bass drum beat and plucked guitars only last two minutes. The transition track feels weak on its own, stripped of its power when it's not sandwiched between the upbeat "Keep the Car Running" and the grandiose "Intervention."
The album peaks early with "Intervention" where the straight pipe organ and loosely strummed acoustic guitar in the background start out like a hymn and builds, first with Butler's vocals until the chorus hits and the bells come in, waiting for the line "hear the soldier groan all quiet and alone" when the whole band comes in. Butler's talent relies not on his songwriting, but instead his ability to take a simple chord progression and spreading the parts around, using a repetition of a theme like any good composer should. But with the triumphant ending of the track, I lose where the band was going.
If released as an EP, the first four tracks would have been priceless. A full movement, and a minor storyline. But instead, the album continues on to the yawner "Black Wave / Bad Vibrations" with the opening line "We can reach the sea" and the opening drum beat too similar to the Go Go's "We Got the Beat." "Ocean of Noise" gets the same blah complaint from me. "The Well and the Lighthouse" and "[Antichrist Television Blues]" each carry an upbeat tone, but fail to ignite and inspire.
Thankfully, "Windowsill," an acoustic opened track with the repeating line "I don't want to live in my father's house no more" that turns into "I don't want to live in America anymore" shows that Win Butler might have paternity issues with G.W. Bush, but it also shows that Butler has improved his ratio of songs not sucking to songs sucking. And finally it’s down to “No Cars Go,” a song re-recorded from their debut EP. I never heard the first version, but I’m not sure I want to. This song, with its shouted “Hey!” and “Go!” and its lush horn and string arrangements is a compelling and powerful track. Win’s old songwriting plus his new arrangements and budget prove to be an interesting combination. The album closes with “My Body Is a Cage,” but I don’t really care ‘cause the track doesn’t do it for me.
I see great potential in this group, and I believe this album is light years ahead of Funeral, but I won’t be putting this on any end of the year lists in 2007.