Arcade Fire releases Neon Bible

The pressure is on for Arcade Fire. After nabbing the torch from The Strokes in 2003 as the next indie rock band to break into the mainstream with Funeral, the group will release its second album, Neon Bible, this Tuesday. The question now is what the group will do with its surprisingly youthful energy, glorious songwriting, and celebrity endorsements (from David Bowie, Coldplay, and others).

Neon Bible wastes no time reminding listeners that the band members are still the energetic risk-takers that they were several years ago. The ground rumbles and sweeps as “Black Mirror” quickly kicks into gear. Chromatic string lines tense up and release as pumping acoustic guitars heave underneath lead singer Win Butler, who growls with the same restrained ferocity he’s had since “Wake Up.” Arcade Fire is back.

Grooves have always been a center part of Arcade Fire’s music, and this record is no different. One of the group’s best tunes to date comes next with “Keep the Car Running.” The opening vamp chugs just like the title suggests, with pizzicato violins and reverbed guitars sticking into the groove as the ’60s-rock drums shuffle along; Arcade Fire has never sounded this tight, ever.

Don’t think that Arcade Fire has lost its folk influence though. Fans of Funeral’s “Neighborhood #4 (7 Kettles)” will dig the lullaby-ish hymn that is the new album’s title track. The brooding melody creeps underneath the breezy texture of a piano, a simple bass drum thump, and the always-astounding string section.

At the core of Arcade Fire’s music seems to be some compelling awareness of church and politics — be it the band members’ five-night stint in New York’s Judson Memorial Church, or even their cries for freedom in Funeral’s “Haiti” — and the new record is no different. The fabulous “Intervention” is glazed with a church organ, while Mr. Butler cries, “Working for the church while your family dies ... every spark of friendship and love will die without a home.” And just as Butler sings, “Hear the soldier groan all quiet and alone” a simple brush flick on a crash cymbal cues the stampede of one of the fattest, biggest, freshest bands in the game.

The reappearance of “No Cars Go” should please fans that dug the group’s EP. A careful listen to the two versions will prove that Arcade Fire’s sound is truly developing; they’re not quite the raw, anthem band that they were several years ago. Their sound is a bit softer, more refined — synthesizers breeze between textured string lines, all pumping underneath the accordion melody. And just when you think Arcade Fire has gone all sissy on you, drummer Jeremy Gara pulls out a snappy snare drum pattern to give the track an extra kick.

Church and politics aside, the album is still wrought with plenty of internal conflict. In “The Well and The Lighthouse,” Butler pleads, “Left for dead... heaven is only in my head.” Time signatures jump from an indie rock cranker to a
blues-like shuffle, just as confused as Butler himself. On “(Antichrist Television Blues),” Butler triumphantly declares over a blues progression, “I don’t want to work in the building downtown.”

Still, Arcade Fire’s new record lacks the sheer power of Funeral. There is simply no song on here that matches the force of “Power Out” or “Wake Up.” But a change in sound is always a bold move, and the group has matched a more carefully produced album with accessible, innovative, and catchy songwriting. Go out and grab Neon Bible; you won’t regret it.