Neon Bible is not Funeral. Even as the most recent album from the Arcade Fire outshines its predecessor in sales and social capital—the release from Merge Records debuted at Number 2 on The Billboard 200—there is an inherent anticipation surrounding the significant sophomore album that expects a perfect replication of the first, triumphant project. Without mistake, the band retains the essential elements of an immeasurably moving sound, yet this album marks a new, shifting identity for these fierce young musicians.
Funeral was an album of mourning that is tearing throes against the melodrama of reality. Neon Bible is, as the name suggests, an album of mystery, and its songs are the sacred texts of the aesthetic stances being taken up by a new breed of priests. Both albums simmer with emotion, but what felt raw and unrestrained on Funeral has been tentatively harnessed by poise and self-control. This development initially feels uncomfortable and insincere, but is a watermark of sensitive maturity; scathing angst has been exchanged for unsubmissive melancholy.
There is an undeniable temptation to search Neon Bible for gate-crashing anthems in the spirit of Funeral‘s poignant champions “Wake Up,” “Neighborhood #2 (Laika),” and “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels).” “Intervention,” the album’s first single, satisfies with overwhelming energy and emotional weight. The heroic, melodramatic lyrics are characteristic of the album’s lyrical mastery, in which allusive meanings hover beneath the melodic surface like translucent icebergs. They are a battle cry that promises to destroy minds when performed live.
The fundamental theme of Funeral was nostalgia; the record guided listeners towards reconciling the melancholy of intimating a forgotten childhood. Its tracks veiled forgotten dreams, and we tore them back to remember ourselves. Neon Bible is a work of fantasy; its songs suggest impossible worlds and imagined histories in rich, subtle detail. Melancholy still pervades, but there is an alternative to collective remorse—fantastic escape.
“No Cars Go,” a terse but epic ode to young alienation, bridges the gap between the Arcade Fire’s projects. Originally recorded on their self-titled EP, “No Cars Go” has been rerecorded as Neon Bible‘s penultimate track. It seems awkward for a young band to be covering themselves on their second studio release, but the reprise candidly juxtaposes two albums’ worth of thematic material and outlines the band’s growth during the hiatus following Funeral‘s unwieldy, pandemonium-laced tour.
“Us kids know,” proclaims the singing voice, “We know a place where no planes go… Between the click of the light / and the start of the dream.” “No Cars Go” articulates the liminal space of Neon Bible‘s songs, where the flights of the forgotten characters’ voices become the realms of our own imaginations.
From the delicate, celestial introduction to the motoring rhythms and broad-siding harmonic charges, “Keep the Car Running” is perhaps the Arcade Fire’s most memorable and impressive new song. It is at once surreal and foreboding, hauntingly pairing charming and even uplifting composition with lyrical images of desperation and paranoid longing as the singer cries, “There’s a fear I keep so deep, / Knew its name since before I could speak. / They know my name ’cause I told it to them, / But they don’t know where / And they don’t know / When It’s coming, Oh! when, but It’s coming.”
It is coming, indeed. Immediately following the album’s release, the band begins the European leg of their first tour since the fall of 2005, which will roll through Boston’s Orpheum Theatre for a single show on May 10th. Like so many other believers, I await with bated breath their sacred incantations. After all, us kids know.