Let's get something out of the way: The Arcade Fire's second album, Neon Bible, could never hope to live up to the hyperbolic accolades and devotion surrounding the band since their 2004 debut, Funeral. As arguably the most important album of the year, Neon Bible was set up for an enormous amount of scrutiny and adoration long before it ever saw the light of day. What people will likely find, if they can divorce themselves from the ever-growing Arcade Fire mythology long enough to actually listen to Neon Bible, is a competent collection of downcast gothic dirges with many great moments, and even more flaws.
From the first few moments of album opener "Black Mirror," it's clear Neon Bible is both bigger and darker than its predecessor. Understandably, the results of these two sonic shifts are mixed. Though Funeral was grand in its scope, Neon Bible steps things up a few levels. The band has always had an orchestral bend, but here it occasionally threatens to overcome the songs themselves. String sections, horns, kettle drums, choirs and a ubiquitous pipe organ populate every spare space on the album. Sometimes the band uses these elements to great effect, such as on "Keep the Car Running," but more often than not, they just serve to distance listeners from Win Butler's emotive voice--the band's greatest strength.
Unfortunately, when Butler's voice does take centre stage, it lacks the immediacy that made Funeral a cathartic drug. Though Funeral was an album about death, it was ultimately uplifting as the band revelled in life. Neon Bible, on the other hand, deals with the price of fame along with less personal political issues. In the end, the band simply isn't as accomplished handling global subject matter as they are talking about balding family trees and youthful vigour. This is most evident on "Black Mirror" and "Windowsill," whose contrived politics would look stupid even among collections of bad adolescent poetry.
Despite these issues, Neon Bible is far from a terrible album, but it's just as far from a great one. Even at their lowest, the Arcade Fire is a thoroughly talented and ambitious band; Neon Bible just has too many missteps to merit all the importance already heaped upon it.