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Arcade Fire

Arcade Fire's Neon Bible is a dense, academic, and ultimately rewarding album fixated on questions of spirituality, religion, and the concept of self — and more specifically, how to reconcile these things in a bleak world where uncertainty is the norm, hope seems dead, and God isn't exactly benevolent. (That is, if she exists at all.) Bible's outlook is rife with the terror of blankness and darkness: The string-buoyed swoon "Windowsill" says "the tide is high, and it's rising still," while "Black Mirror" — a thunderstorm-like musical cousin to Echo & the Bunnymen's "The Killing Moon" — speaks of "waking from a nightmare to see no moon, no pale reflection." Explicit references to wars, bombs, and a vaguely sinister "they" also abound, as if physical violence, if not spiritual nihilism or Big Brother, threatens the world's livelihood. This approach is quite a change from the group's 2004 breakthrough, Funeral, which ruminated heavily on aging and rebirth from a perspective of possibility. Unsurprisingly, Bible lacks the Talking Heads-like playfulness and jug-band jubilation of Funeral, and there's nothing as gut-punching as "Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)" or as catchy as "Rebellion (Lies)." In fact, Bible sounds more like a somber funeral than Funeral does; minor chords, cherubic harmonies, and sprawling, chilly string and horn arrangements combine for fire-and-brimstone hymns and stormy sea lullabies. But the album isn't boring; it's just more subtle, more challenging, more immense, and a quintessential headphones album.

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