Q. When is a disappointment not a disappointment?
A. When it's The Arcade Fire's new record.
Let's examine the two reasons why Neon Bible initially left me less than satisfied:
1. The album's climactic track 'No Cars Go' is not actually new at all. In fact, it's been around for a while, and appears here in re-recorded form.
2. It's not Funeral.
And here are the two reasons why I've since got over my disappointment:
1. The Neon Bible version of 'No Cars Go', while not unfamiliar, undoubtedly benefits from having been re-recorded, invested with post-Funeral depth and richness. Put simply, it's a better song.
2. Neon Bible never was going to be another Funeral. Out of fairness to the band who emerged from obscurity to take the UK by storm with that superlative record two years ago, the question we should really be asking is whether or not Neon Bible would have been hailed a triumph if Funeral had never happened and wasn't casting its formidable shadow over the follow-up and the music world as a whole. The answer, most definitely, is yes.
Earlier in the week I mentioned Paul Morley's cover feature about The Arcade Fire for Observer Music Monthly - well, now I've actually got round to reading it. Here's Morley's attempt to capture what they sound like: "a group who imagined what The Band would be like if Ian McCulloch was their singer and Kurt Weill their producer, who could dream up a rhapsodic Roy Orbison / Pixies / Fairport Convention / Springsteen / My Bloody Valentine / Temptation / Simple Minds / Kronos Quartet hybrid, and quietly contemplate a loud, 19th century Joy Division singing urgent, churning sea shanties about silent suns, the mysteries of memory and the agonies of desire".
Well, that goes some way to conveying how all-encompassing their sound is. But for me they've always been much easier to understand. In the article Morley refers to "the kind of lightly experimental, obscure Canadian bands [The] Arcade Fire once hoped to support and collaborate with" without naming names, while Richard Reed Parry claims that "Canadian-ness", associated with insecurity, has acted on and eroded Win Butler's typically American certainty, and Butler himself enthuses about the fertility of the arts scene in Montreal when he first arrived in early 2001.
For me, the fact that the band's birthplace was Montreal is key. They've taken the righteous indignation, the DIY ethic, the humanist spirit, the apocalyptic mindset, the left-wing politics and the frequently painful and frictional relationship between hope and despair of Montreal luminaries like Godspeed! You Black Emperor and burst out of the leftfield ghetto in spectacular fashion. They've had the guts to take the fight to the mainstream, rather than keep themselves at an ascetic distance. They've decided to shout their passion, their dissent loud and clear centre-stage, rather than from the wings. What's more, as The New Yorker's Sacha Frere-Jones has commented, "[The] Arcade Fire speaks to several generations at once". Pop isn't a dirty word.
All this is exemplified by Neon Bible. The name - that of the novel the teenage John Kennedy Toole wrote prior to 'A Confederacy Of Dunces' - is perfect for the record that it is: an unashamedly grandiose exploration of (and search for) belief, hope, spirituality and meaning in a fallen world wracked by war, characterised by meanness of spirit and glossed over cheaply and superficially (see the brilliant 'Intervention' and 'Windowsill' for particular evidence).
Of course, gazing up at the Big Themes runs the risk of stumbling into the pothole of hopeless pretention (and in the same issue of OMM as Morley's article Ben Thompson refers disparagingly to their "empty, monolithic bigness" while suggesting that Kings Of Leon's latest offering Because Of The Times is superior despite essentially being an exercise in karaoke - hmm...) - but The Arcade Fire never do. Neon Bible is ambitious and grand in scope but never less than accessible, thrilling first and foremost on the level of music.
Album of the year? Just maybe. It is only March, after all...