Neon Bible–Arcade Fire 

(Merge)

I never quite connected with the drama on this band's 2004 debut, Funeral, one of the decade's biggest indie-rock cult faves. But on this follow-up, the Montreal septet packed with American ex-pats turn their previously private agonies and anxieties public. Some would classify the content as "political," but this isn't about elections. It's about (quality of) life and (threat of) death. (Which often is what elections are about.) In the opening "Black Mirror," frontman Win Butler awakens from a troubled sleep to gaze into an uncertain future: "Mirror, mirror on the wall/Show me where them bombs will fall," he sings. And from there, he and his band rouse themselves from a restless night to concoct a sweeping, mournful lament about a world gone mad, before escaping into slumber again with the climaxing — though not closing — "No Cars Go."

Musically, Neon Bible builds from the dark, New Order-esque swoon of "Keep the Car Running" to the pipe-organ-drenched penitence of "Intervention" to a gathering "ocean of noise." Spiritual, stirring, grandiose, the band at first comes across like an indie-rock U2. But there's no Christ complex here. Butler's wobbly, human-scale voice navigates the music more like a David Byrne. And the music has an organic, homemade modesty. The scruffy, ragtag quality of the band effectively undercuts — or, in a different way, emboldens — the band's grandiosity. Maybe they're more like a young, middle-class Mekons.

Neon Bible gets bigger, bolder, more specific as it goes, peaking with the righteous, sorrowful, anti-American sing-along "Windowsill" (the refrain "I don't want to live in my father's house no more" morphs into "I don't want to live in America no more"), where Butler namechecks what he wishes he could reject: "holy war," inherited debt, salesmen at the door, a rising tide that could drown us all. Along the way, there's "The Well and the Lighthouse," a subtle parable about cultural (read: indie-rock) isolation, in which Arcade Fire choose the lighthouse and the responsibility that comes with it. Otherwise, they muse, "the ships are gonna wreck." — Chris Herrington

Grade: A-

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