Less than two minutes into “Intervention,” the band's leader Win Butler crumples under the line “every spark of friendship and love will die without a home.” By this time, soldiers and church and crying have already been covered. It's a demonstration of suckerpunching. But this is the Arcade Fire's shtick: fifty ticker-tape parades and six screens playing Miracle On 34th Street simultaneously, soundtracked by “Livin'On a Prayer.” Underdog gumption sells, and in indie rock, former playground for huge egos skulking under cultivated self-effacement, so does bare-assed emotional optimism.
Initial rapture over the Arcade Fire spoke to a broad wanting in indie-music listeners: less wit, more feeling. Where new romanticism toyed with being arch, Neon Bible's nü-new romanticism — gloriously retarded metaphysics like “my body is a cage that keeps me from dancing with the one I love,” ten-ton pipe organs — is almost indigestibly earnest. Then again, that's the point.
Neon Bible isn't nearly as immediate or consistent as Funeral. It has the same Bowie anthems and New Order stride, but the brisk hope has turned stone dead. The tunes are simpler, the lyrics are dumber, and the sentiments are wielded like clubs. But that's what anthems are made of — the best of Neon Bible is irresistible. When Win unleashes the title of “Black Mirror” through a curtain of swirling strings and backwards whispers, it's practically kitsch. At album's end you realize that “My Body Is a Cage,” a swollen, blankly hopeless slave dirge, is the centerpiece. And even though “The Well and the Lighthouse” apes Springsteen's heroism (which he nipped from Phil Spector anyhow), the lyrics are about dying, splashing around in the dark, being lost and cod-Biblical yearning — “Resurrected, living in a lighthouse, if you leave them, ships are gonna wreck.” The Arcade Fire, who once sounded like a guiding force or a way out, are now as trapped and lost as any other mook in this frigid downer of a world.