There are few bands I remember where I was the very first time I heard them but I remember the first time I heard Arcade Fire. A college friend had transferred to the same art school in Montreal that Win Butler and company attended, and came home that summer insisting that I sit down right this second and listen to this new band he heard. He pulled out a CDR from a plastic baggie with a homemade album cover, a first printing of the first Arcade Fire release, hustled by the band themselves during their early shows, and dropped it in the CD tray. I always hate it when I'm forced on the spot to listen to this band I absolutely have to hear but it didn't take long for me to see the sheer brilliance of songs like "No Cars Go" and "Headlights Look Like Diamonds." I don't know if my friend predicted fame and fortune for them at the time (plenty of great bands never achieve fame and fortune) but I feel confident in saying that those who heard these songs are not surprised at their level of success six years later.
So then Funeral dropped later that year and made all the year-end best-of lists and sold half a million copies worldwide and introduced a lot of kids to the indie rock aesthetic and made Arcade Fire one of the biggest bands in the world. "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)" is as a perfect album-opener as they come; it promises a sensational epic, setting up a momentum that does nothing to disappoint in the subsequent tracks, peaking with the bombastic and anthemic "Neighborhood #3 (Power Out) and "Rebellion (Lies)." Funeral pulls off the rare trick of making an epic album demanded to be heard in its unbroken entirety but the individual songs stand their own as potential singles. It's one of the best records of the decade (maybe even the best), so even if no one else seemed to be disappointed with the follow-up Neon Bible, I couldn't help but not be all that wowed the first few listens.
To be sure, Neon Bible is a bit of a grower. The songs don't explode as much as they do on Funeral but multiple listens reveal a very very good (if not great) album. At this point in their career, Arcade Fire had become as close to a stadium band as an indie group can get, and some of these songs sound like Jesus & Mary Chain or Echo & the Bunnymen with U2 aspirations. It isn't exactly inconsistent; the lesser songs still fit the overall tone of the album but "My Body is a Cage" is probably their worse song, the title track is mere filler and the reworking of "No Cars Go" offers nothing new to the early fans who championed them way back when. "Antichrist Television Blues," though…Jesus, what a killer song. It's barely five minutes long but the baroque approach makes it seem twice as long, and to me, a great song is never too long.