It’s fair to say that immediately prior to the release of Neon Bible, the music scene was working itself up into a frenzy over Arcade Fire, with their full length Funeral being (rightly) hailed as a modern masterpiece, to the point where a band that initially released their debut album with the minimum of fan-fair found their sophomore album being frothed over by large parts of the media as one of the musical events of the year.
But was it actually any good?
Given the weight of expectation on Neon Bible, it would have been impossible for it to match everyone’s expectations, so those that derided the band sat on the edge of their seats in waiting for the inevitable damp-squib. A decade later they’re still sitting there, because against all odds Arcade Fire released an album that in parts matched and occasionally even exceeds their illustrious debut.
Sure it’s a slightly more mature album, Win Butler lost a lot of the fragile little-boy-lost vocal mannerisms that some found so grating and it’s a slightly less organic album with a whacking great string section threatening to overpower the band at some points. It is this battle against a larger power though that gives Neon Bible it’s strength though, it is an album where it is apparent that the band had faith in their own musical abilities to pull them through. There’s a thin line between self-confidence and arrogance, but Neon Bible always keeps on the right side of that line.
Song wise there’s nothing as immediately and obviously brilliant as “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” or “Wake Up”, but after repeated plays the strength of the songs becomes obvious and they start burrowing into your subconscious in the same way that “Rebellion (Lies)” did. “Keep the Car Running” is probably the albums most commercial moment, but when the church organ of “Intervention” swells up from the speakers, it’s obvious that Arcade Fire have located a certain kind of sonic alchemy that very few bands ever manage to tap into successfully and it serves as a corner stone to the whole album.
As the album shuttles along, various influences start to become evident, with Bruce Springsteen being the one that the contemporary press latched on to, with unbelievers wailing on about how Echo and the Bunnymen did this kind of thing years ago. The one thing that hardly anybody seems to have picked up on is how skillfully Arcade Fire managed to distill and update The Waterboys’ ‘Big Music’ for a whole new generation.
Both “(Antichrist Television Blues)” and “Windowsill” are splendid tunes easily on a par with the band’s earlier work, but the biggest surprise of the album is actually the oldest song on the album. When “No Cars Go” initially appeared on the splendid Arcade Fire EP / mini-album, it was an enjoyably upbeat sprint of a tune. Here on Neon Bible it’s like the original tune had spent the intervening five years in the gym in preparation for it being the greatest moment on this album. Yes it’s the same tune, but the version here is considerably more powerful and as the choir and orchestra climax towards the end it totally justifies the reworking of the original. Then, just when the album seems to have reached a suitable apex, the church organ swells up again to make “My Body Is A Cage” a truly epic closer.
After nearly forty seven minutes of modern ‘Big Music’, Neon Bible leaves us feeling the same way that Funeral did – wanting more. It’s a bigger and more confident album than it’s predecessor, so why don’t I love Neon Bible more than I do Funeral? To be honest it’s something I’m struggling to justify. The only way I can explain it is that Funeral unexpectedly bit me on the arse in the same way a crocodile might do while you’re buying tea bags in Tesco, whereas with Neon Bible I was aware of what the band were capable of, so I was much more prepared for greatness.
Yes Arcade Fire did, and still do, have their detractors, but then all acts do. Yes perhaps it was over-hyped by an over-enthusiastic media and maybe it wasn’t as ‘intimate’ and ‘personal’ as it could have been, but what is undeniable is that with Neon Bible, Arcade Fire reached a peak that few bands in their career ever reach.