Monday, March 05, 2007

Neon Bible by The Arcade Fire

After releasing a record (2005's astonishing Funeral) that, despite some positively macabre subject matter (see the title), managed to resolutely hold its head high, uttering consistent refrains of hope and love springing eternally from fountains of pain and death, it's a little surprising that while the deaths of several family members wasn't enough to drag the Arcade Fire's spirits down, 18 months of relentless touring and examination does.

If Neon Bible is, perhaps inevitably, a little world-weary, it is probably a little understandable, after all, making the second album for a band hailed as all conquering heroes not two years ago would rest heavily on anyone's shoulders, it's certainly not cause for dismay. Opening with an ominous rumble of thunder and an insistent, yet strangely inconspicuous beat, album starter 'Black Mirror' sets the equally ominous tone, singer Win Butler intoning is his own inimitable way "I will walk down to the ocean/After waking from the nightmare/No moon, no pale reflection". What is perhaps most notable on Neon Bible is the presence of restraint that was perhaps lacking on Funeral. Where, on 'The Well and the Lighthouse', one would have previously expected a joyously uplifting final chorus to rapidly dispel any morbid feelings one might be suffering, the song shifts gear into a wonderful 3/4 time ramble.

It is this tendency to cover some palpably dire subject matter with some wonderfully upbeat music that defines Neon Bible from its predecessor. Where Funeral was, well, funereal, while singing songs of hope and joy, Neon Bible is replete with lyrics like "I don't know what I'm gonna do/Cause the planes keep crashing always two by two/Don't wanna work in a building downtown/No, I don't wanna see it when the planes hit the ground" on 'Antichrist Television Blues', while being set to what could possibly be described as the Arcade Fire doing their own 'Subterranean Homesick Blues'.

However, the clear highlight is the showstopping 'Keep the Car Running', possibly the most perfect three and a half minute pop song ever recorded. Set to gentle, pulsing mandolin, Butler sings of what seems to be the pressures of recording this oh-so-difficult second album ("There's a weight that's pressing down", "can't climb across a mountain so high") and makes magic.

On this, a fine sophomore effort, the Arcade Fire almost manage to live up to the impossible expectations set by their debut. But certainly, it is a more mature and balanced, if occasionally wilfully adult - lacking the spontaneous flights of fancy of Funeral - effort, and will certainly see the band once again resume their place atop many a best-of-2007 podiums come December. Quite possibly this one, too.

4 1/2 stars

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