Arcade Fire may be the biggest little band in the world. Big because they're a sprawling octet whose operatic 2004 debut, "Funeral"—a collection of rumbling, ramshackle anthems about death and redemption—scored pristine reviews, sold half a million copies and earned them spots on stage with David Bowie, David Byrne and U2. Yet little, too—the Canadian ensemble is, at heart, a close-knit family act (married couple Win Butler and Régine Chassagne write and sing the songs; Butler's brother Will serves as sideman) who've stuck with an indie label, busked after concerts and unveiled anticipated new tracks in one bandmember's high-school cafeteria. Sure, their recent five-night stands in New York, London and Montreal sold out in seconds. Which sounds pretty impressive—except that they booked the shows at a church, a Victorian music hall and a Ukrainian community center. Somewhere, Bono is baffled.
Their sophomore effort, "Neon Bible," out this week, won't entirely clear up the confusion. But it will seriously up the ante. While Butler & Co. have built buzz for the disc with typical small-scale panache—a mysterious 1-866 number, strange parodic pamphlets, a surreal YouTube video (for which they denied responsibility)—the music itself is more colossal than ever. Gone are the trendy postpunk beats and bleating Byrnesque vocals of "Funeral"; the band is now making unabashed, Springsteenian classic rock about the collision of faith and contemporary culture. And it works—big time. "Intervention"—all immense pipe organ and anxious barking ("working for the church while your family dies")—sounds like the Boss at Sunday mass. "Windowsill" rhymes MTV and World War III over a surf beat and soaring strings, while "My Body Is a Cage" starts as a swampy gospel lament and ends as a lofty prayer ("Set my spirit free"). Best of all is the frantic "Antichrist Television Blues," a surprisingly sympathetic glimpse into the heart of Joe Simpson (the man to blame for Jessica and Ashlee). "Funeral" fanatics may wince at "Neon Bible"'s murkier vibe, but they'd be wrong not to recognize (and celebrate) what a rarity it is: a rich rock record that manages, in this age of disposable 99-cent singles, to make a cohesive, combative statement about the way we live today—and keeps it catchy enough to sing in the shower. Sometimes bigger really is better.