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Sunday, December 13, 2009

Arcade Fire: Funeral


1) Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels); 2) Neighborhood #2 (Laika); 3) Une Année Sans Lumière; 4) Neighborhood #3 (Power Out); 5) Neighborhood #4 (7 Kettles); 6) Crown Of Love; 7) Wake Up; 8) Haiti; 9) Rebellion (Lies); 10) In The Backseat.

The «noughties» have predictably brought back a common interest in the Eighties, as new bands are springing up whose members sacrificed their childhood to that decade. Theoretically, this is quite creepy: what kind of music can we expect from people whose minds had been shaped by the likes of Cyndi Lauper or Duran Duran? Or Mötley Crüe, for that matter? How can one be influen­ced by plastic sound and end up not producing recycled plastic sound?

But on practice, it's all in the mind. If somebody can make David out of a spoiled block of marble, then some other body can make great music out of a simple synth-pop theme. And if the members of Arcade Fire had not properly absorbed their childhood influences, there is no way they could have produced an album as flawless as Funeral. Even Cyndi Lauper has its proper place on it — somewhere — maybe in the kiddie keyboard line of 'Haiti' — maybe elsewhere.

Funeral was recorded in late 2003, in Montreal, by no less than fifteen musicians who, collecti­vely, call themselves Arcade Fire. All the tracks are credited to «Arcade Fire» as such, but the leading force behind the wall-of-sound is the nuclear family unit of Win Butler and Régine Chas­sagne; they are the only two lead singers, play a good half of the instruments, and, arguably, write the bulk of the melodies and the lyrics. These are the bare facts. Another bare fact is that Funeral has been lauded by just about every critic in existence (including even grumpy old codger Robert Christgau), so that hipsters and indie snobs should find it their duty to hate it — or join the herd. Then again, with the unbelievable degree of musical segregation that we experience today, I am sure many people have not even heard of it in the first place. So let's talk about it all the same.

Many critics have already dubbed it the best, or one of the best, albums of the decade. I cannot, and do not want to, speak in those terms, but I would certainly like to discuss it on its own terms, and that way Funeral is no less than perfect. At its heart lies an honest infatuation with the biggest-sounding, pomp-oriented bands of the Eighties — primarily U2 and the Cure (influences which band members confess to quite freely in their interviews), but I also detect whiffs of R.E.M. and New Order and... well, this can go on for quite a bit. Yet, with fifteen members sha­ring the rights and privileges of this democratic musical community, none of the songs really sound like second-hand tributes; rather, this legacy serves as the backbone around which they build up mus­cles from a whole heap of other sources, resulting in a unique kind of synthesis.

Obviously, there are progressive elements, with various classically derived subthemes weaving around the main melodies. There is also a strong folk-rock tendency, especially on the record's quieter numbers. The «baroque pop» genre of the Sixties leaves its imprint on songs like '7 Ket­tles' and others. There is unity, for sure, but no strong sign of driving themselves into one particu­lar corner or niche — just as you think you got them finally figured out, along comes some unex­pected surprise that crushes your attempts at pigeonholing them as «arena rock» or «mope rock» or «the Cure with less reverb and a chick playing violin».

At the same time, they are very «commercial», very strongly pop. They know the drill: important thing number one is to establish a basic hook, a simple riff, an unsophisticated, maybe even recy­cled theme, but one that necessarily resonates in the soul. Once that has been done, you hit on all the cylinders, draw on all the resources of your fifteen-strong army to turn your «pop» into «art», and that's when the cat is firmly in the bag.

This is what makes 'Wake Up', the album's anthemic centerpiece, the potboiler that it is. I am all but sure I already heard that riff, maybe with some minor changes, somewhere else. But where­ever it was, it was never used in such a powerful, tear-inducing setting. When Win Butler sings 'Somethin' filled up my heart with nothin', someone told me not to cry', you know that he is really inviting you to cry — not to mention that his very voice inherently betrays a man constantly on the verge of breakdown — and when he goes on saying 'But now that I'm older, my heart's col­der, and I can see that it's a lie', I am glad to accept that invitation. And when all the band mem­bers start chanting the song's refrain in unison, how joyful it is to see the return of the good old cathar­sis: truly, the song's purifying power is easily comparable to 'All You Need Is Love' (and the chorus, quite obviously, is a direct reference to 'Hey Jude'), except it just comes about thirty years too late to exercise that power all over the world.

'Wake Up' is the album's only anthem, but there are quite a few other rock-out monsters: 'Rebel­lion (Lies)' with its power-bass derived from the Joy Division school, but used in a far more opti­mistic context; 'Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)', with Edge-style guitar playing over a Robert Smith-style raging-sea sonic panorama; and the album's most tongue-in-cheek tribute to post-mo­dernism, 'Neighborhood #2 (Laika)', combining New Wave arrangements with accordeons, drunk folksy choruses, and lyrics about vampires and, well, Laikas.

Then there are the quiet moments, every bit as stimulating — the folk drone of '7 Kettles', the gentle French mannerisms of 'Une Année Sans Lumière', and my favourite, the (perhaps slightly overemoted) confession 'Crown Of Love'. In this quiet section, Butler cedes the spotlight to Régine on two occasions: the lovely nostalgia of 'Haiti', where she sings about her ethnic back­ground, and the gorgeous conclusion of 'In The Backseat', a very autumnesque baroque ballad that somehow combines the subjects of her aversion to driving and her grandmother's death.

Death is frequently mentioned, by the way, as the main subject of the album — Captain Ob­vious will be happy to direct you to its title, and a little research tells you that several band members had lost their relatives around the time of its recording (properly speaking, though, most of it was recorded after the death of only one person, Régine's grandmother). But I do not get the impres­sion that it is «about death», per se; that would be too blunt, too Goth. Funeral is a very sad al­bum, indeed — much of it has to do with Butler's voice, which I could see as over-annoyingly whiny for some people — but its atmosphere is not depressive or «funebral».

I would rather describe it as ranging from «frightened» to «confused», describing the fright and confusion that arise from living in society — not «Society» en large, but just your immediate so­ciety, the one that forms the central focus of the four parts of the 'Neighborhood' suite. There are no truly grand social statements, which is where they part company with U2 (but not with the Cure, though): Funeral does not deal with Irish independence or poverty in the third world. But there is an idea of discomfort and, perhaps, incomprehension — feelings that every mentally un­challenged person in our society experiences from time to time. The wall of sound that the fifteen members produce is mostly used in a claustrophobic manner — part of it surrounds you with an actual, almost-real wall, and the other part represents your inner demons that, having broken out but found no way to break on through to the other side, only return to torment you more. And over all that din, Butler's tearful voice resonates like the feeble, but stable blubbering of a broken down patient in an asylum. It's not all that bad or inescapably dangerous or apocalyptic, but it is all unsafe and uncomfortable, and only if you 'Wake Up' can you ever regain some comfort.

This is the message I'm reading into Funeral, and it may be all a lot of bull, but it is one of those classy records which you can try to decode from multiple angles — or just enjoy mindlessly with­out any decoding. It is big, sprawling, ambitious, and, in a rare instance, it deserves to be just that. My undying respect goes to Butler and Chassagne for pulling it all off. Thumbs up, and, most amazingly, with the melting heart slowly in the lead. Sentimentalism is gonna be the death of me one of these days.


  1. I don't get it. I just don't...
    None of their songs are memorable whatsoever and i have tried to give this album 5 spins.

  2. When this album first came out, I was enthralled. However, repeated listening diluted my interest - the hooks are too repetitive and the musicianship is definitely lacking. They have the "big vision" thing down, but don't have the ability to carry it off.

  3. Great review, George.

    Glad to have you back (:

  4. Arcade Fire in general is a tacky notion, but their much hyped debut surely wasn't bad at all! But its interesting that such a huge bunch of people are willin' to give so much credit to people who "play" a shit load of instruments but don't have the self-discipline to actually LEARN HOW to play them! Well, I guess punk-rock goes by the same terms... Its just frustrating to see people hyped by something so unprofessional and/or are stupid enough to declare the folk as multi-intrumentalists!

  5. "the lovely nostalgia of 'Haiti', where she sings about her ethnic back­ground"
    Sorry, what?
    "wounded homeland I'll never see... throw my ashes into the sea... in the forest, we are hiding, unmarked graves where flowers grow... guns can't kill, soldiers can't see... in these days the blood's still warm"

    Aside from that, great review.

  6. Great review, and I agree fully in that Arcade Fire's Funeral is a masterpiece in the Indie music world.

    At first I dismissed this band as being another crappy, wimpy Indie group. I'd heard a few of their songs, but hadn't given the group as a whole enough of a chance. Then I gave this album a chance, and I was just sold on the first listen. Everything just comes together so perfectly. The vocals and lyrics, the instruments, the arrangements, the melodies, the energy, etc... I'm glad you enjoyed it the same as I did.

    I've been reading your reviews for over a year now on both the original site and on this blog. You have some good insights into the music you listen to, and your English is amazing. I mean, you speak English as a second language and yet your writing in English is more eloquent than most native English speakers. It makes sense that you're a linguist.

    However, I was wondering about one thing, George. I couldn't help but notice a shift in your musical attitude. Not that I have a problem with it, since open-mindedness is healthy. It's just that I can't help but remember your opinions on the state of music, how most modern music is poor with only a few notable exceptions showing through (I agree with this opinion, and nostalgia has nothing to do with it. I grew up on Green Day and Linkin Park, but then made the switch to older and more eclectic music tastes).

    I know you used to think modern music is only good as an exception where older music is good per rule. But having gone through this blog, I wonder if you still think this?