Personally, I was terrified as I waited for the Arcade Fire's second album -- so many bands have made exquisite first albums, only to disappoint with the second.
But there are few missteps in the amazing "Neon Bible," which tries out a new sound for the Montreal band -- it sounds darker, eerier, and thoroughly exquisite. They take the chamberpop sound to a stormy cliffside over the ocean.
It opens with steady acoustic guitar, and a swell of windy synth that sounds like waves crashing on the rocks. "I will walk down to the ocean/After waking from the nightmare/No moon, no pale reflection/Black mirror, black mirror," Win Butler murmurs over a rising tide of clashing piano.
They slip into the shimmering rock'n'roll of "Keep The Car Running," which cascades down into a beautiful folky tune wrapped in synth. The songs that follow continue this feeling: the quietly taut title track, ghostly experimental, transcendent little guitar-piano ballads, soaring organ pop, and even a sparkling, catchy indiepop tune or two.
The Arcade Fire obviously took their time crafting this album, and making all the kind of intelligent rock people expect from them. But the sound is entirely different -- it's darker and stranger than its predecessor, as well as sounding a bit more processed.
Granted, I wasn't crazy about the pipe-organ blues of "Intervention." However, the other songs are sheer brilliance musically -- a beautiful thunderstorm of instrumentation, with the sound of a sonic religious experience. Just listen to the crescendo of soaring voices, drums, horns and strings at the end of "No Cars Go."
As for the instrumentation, it's packed in dense, shifting layers. Flexible guitars, clashing piano, tinkling xylophone, accordion, hurdy-gurdy, bells, dark drumming, strings and samples. The keyboard is the finishing touch, giving everything an otherworldly sound.
As if the music weren't powerful enough, we're given Win Butler's wailing vocals, often backed by one or more soaring female voices. No wonder he sounds so depressed -- the lyrics are full of bombs, flight from hostile countries, and the sorrow of living in interesting times. "Every night my dream's the same/Same old city with a different name/They're not coming to take me away/I don't know why but I know I can't stay..."
The Arcade Fire pour out a powerful, exquisite second album in "Neon Bible," one of the most compellingly beautiful albums this year.