Arcade Fire Neon Bible Merge Records

In 2004, a big, sprawling band from Montreal unveiled a big, sprawling album about death. Around the world, words began to pour out of brains, through fingers and into word processors. They formed a trickle of blog posts and message board threads, became a steady flow of reviews and eventually transformed into a turbulent river of hyperbole. Riding a current of binary bravado and pulp diction, the river kept raging until it reached a fever pitch of impossible expectations. Nothing could live up to this much adulation. And then Arcade Fire did.

Funeral kicked up more dust among critics, record store types and music nerds than any record in recent memory, except maybe that dreadful Arctic Monkeys nonsense. But, defying the odds, Arcade Fire's first album and its brutal, epic live show deserved every bit of praise. Which is all the more reason to believe this new offering would be a massive letdown. You know what they say about lightning.

Arcade Fire Neon Bible Merge Records

In 2004, a big, sprawling band from Montreal unveiled a big, sprawling album about death. Around the world, words began to pour out of brains, through fingers and into word processors. They formed a trickle of blog posts and message board threads, became a steady flow of reviews and eventually transformed into a turbulent river of hyperbole. Riding a current of binary bravado and pulp diction, the river kept raging until it reached a fever pitch of impossible expectations. Nothing could live up to this much adulation. And then Arcade Fire did.

Funeral kicked up more dust among critics, record store types and music nerds than any record in recent memory, except maybe that dreadful Arctic Monkeys nonsense. But, defying the odds, Arcade Fire's first album and its brutal, epic live show deserved every bit of praise. Which is all the more reason to believe this new offering would be a massive letdown. You know what they say about lightning.

Sure enough, Neon Bible is no match for its predecessor. They're much the same--sweeping crescendos build to massive climaxes; thick layers of guitars, keyboards and strings flesh out big, heavy drums; angsty vocals sing "big ideas" lyrics. But on first listen, the only part of Neon Bible that stood out was "No Cars Go," a song the band already released five years ago. That initial reaction has proved a bit harsh; let's chalk it up to familiarity. At the time, though, all the other tracks melted into a blur of melodrama, as if the gaudy grandeur of three years ago remained but lacked sufficient inspiration. Without the personal turmoil that fueled Funeral, the band has turned to global concerns and tried to write Big, Important Songs. People like to write that Arcade Fire "needed" to make Funeral, that in a time of immense grief, they had no choice but to coax out those majestic rock 'n' roll hymns. Unfortunately, the band "needed" to make Neon Bible too, but in the "oh crap, we owe Merge some more records" sort of way.

Thing is, once you grapple with the fact that the honeymoon is over, this marriage starts to seem pretty appealing again. Win Butler and company still make arresting music, even if it lacks some of that unmistakable vitality infused into their earlier work. Spend some time getting to know this album, and it'll make for a fine companion. Consider the uptempo "Keep the Car Running" and its Boss-like bellows, or the delightfully gloomy, two-headed suite "Black Waves/Bad Vibrations." And what about the claustrophobic "(Antichrist Television Blues)" or "The Well and the Lighthouse," a song that touches on every reason this band is great? Hell, on the right night, the organ-drenched "Intervention" might even take you back to the glory days. (By the way, when the band played that song on Saturday Night Live, Butler violated the Garth Brooks Memorial Acoustic Guitar Smashing Prohibition Act. For shame.)

The album has its weak spots too. "Windowsill" is full of misguided lines like "I don't want to live in America no more" and "MTV, what have you done to me?" and its music is some of the least captivating on the album. Ending song "My Body Is a Cage" is Arcade Fire-by-numbers, but it's redeemed slightly by an elegant, heartbreaking final minute. And even if "Black Mirror" fades in ominously to set the album's tone, it seems more like a B-side than a fitting first track. Even these weaker songs have merit, and they're constantly endearing themselves over time.

A letdown? In the long run, no way. Even if it pales in the context of Arcade Fire's career, Neon Bible outshines most of the year's ballyhooed new releases and crushes the average long-player. So what if the band's second shot at high heavens fell a bit short? Low heavens are heavenly nonetheless.

Grade: B+ Download: "No Cars Go," "Intervention" Web: arcadefire.com