Two years ago the Arcade Fire staged an indie-rock circus here at the Roxy: There were violins, xylophones, and tambourines, a disco ball and natty suit jackets, a pair of plastic calves lashed to the drum kit, and a festive parade through the nightclub. The Montreal-based band was playing songs from its first album, 2004's "Funeral," an elegy inspired by the deaths of several family members that redefined catharsis for the MySpace generation.
How the band found its way to such strange, joyous music in the face of desolation and despair is a mystery. And if the mystery doesn't exactly deepen on "Neon Bible," the band's new album (in stores today) hews to the same wild possibility that the only lucid response to agony is bold, tuneful ecstasy.
The Arcade Fire's lyrics are abstract, but the album's message is clear: Modern life is a soul-sucking nightmare. The water is deep, cold, and rising fast. The apocalypse is coming. Bonds of faith and community that offered comfort on "Funeral" have evaporated, replaced by a cosmic void. "Every spark of friendship and love/ Will die without a home/ Hear the soldier groan, 'We'll go at it alone,' " sings Win Butler on "Intervention. " In a less remarkable band's hands, the soundtrack to such miserable tidings would be bleak. Butler and Régine Chassagne, the Arcade Fire's married masterminds, crank up the hurdy-gurdys and slather on the celestial bells, making "Intervention" one of the most uplifting rock songs in recent memory.
That musical math -- dismal words, exuberant sounds -- isn't unique to the Arcade Fire. But here majestic choruses don't signify redemption; there's no such luck and no such thing. Safe haven is a fleeting fantasy, found "between the click of the light/ And the start of the dream," according to the post-punk anthem "No Cars Go, " and that's a good description of the Arcade Fire's musical comfort zone, too. Not quite of this world and not quite over the edge, these earthy, epic songs aren't meant to save us, only to supply some monumental crescendos and a wide-screen view on the way down.
"Mirror, mirror on the wall/ Show me where the bombs will fall" goes the fist-pumping coda on lead single "Black Mirror." The mirror fails, but on "Keep the Car Running, " swirling strings, fist-pumping guitars, and gleeful hand claps succeed brilliantly. That gloriously orchestrated vision of the future infects everything that follows with paranoid urgency: the spare, deathly title track, the epic anti-surf tune "Black Wave/Bad Vibrations, " the pummeling heartland anthem "The Antichrist Television Blues. "
"I'm standing on a stage/ Of fear and self-doubt/ It's a hollow play/ But they'll clap anyway," Butler moans on the closing track, "My Body Is a Cage. " He makes sure of it, catapulting his little folk melody to the heavens with a gospel choir, regal pipe organ, and a final plea to "set my spirit free." Butler and company deserve that much, after doing the same for us.
The Arcade Fire is at the Orpheum Theatre May 10.