A decade after Arcade Fire’s debut album Funeral was released it can be hard to remember how Arcade Fire shook up musical standards. It arrived at a time when the music industry paradigm was disintegrating and all the old industry guidelines were taking a direct hit. Arcade Fire would become one of the leaders in ushering in the second age of Alternative Music. Their initial salvo Funeral was a shape shifting genre hopping disc that has been hailed as a modern classic, euphoric, bright, powerful and also like the title indicated elegiac. It was like nothing else out there but at the same time had a familiarity that drew in many listeners.
Arcade Fire was founded by Win Butler and Josh Deu in 2001, both had met at Phillips Exeter Academy and both attended Concordia University at McGill University. It was there that Win met his now wife Regine Chassagne. There would proceed to be many incarnations of Arcade Fire with the picking up and dropping off contributors, with Deu leaving at one point when the commitment to relentless gigging took its toll. The band would shake out to a basic congregate membership for the recording of Funeral in 2003. Here is the laundry list of members; Win Butler vocals, guitar, piano, synth, bass, Regine Chassagne vocals, drums, synth, piano, accordion, xylophone, recorders, percussion, Richard Reed Parry on guitar, synth, organ, piano, accordion, xylophone, percussion and aided in engineering, Tim Kingsbury on bass, guitar, and engineering, Howard Bilerman, drums and guitar, William Butler bass, xylophone, synth and percussion.
Additional musicians were as follows; Sarah Neufeld, violin, string arrangements, Owen Pallett also on violin and string arrangements, Michael Olsen Cello, Pietro Arnato Horns, and Anita Fust on harp. Look up multi instrumentalist in the dictionary and you will find the members of Arcade Fire in the illustration. Their concerts are an exciting exercise in keeping track of who is playing what when. There are 17 instruments and counting in the repertoire of the members. Rumor has it that one small venue on seeing the size of the band said there would be no room for the punters once the band set up. The multi member band configuration alone confronted the Rock and Roll archetypes of what a typical band should look like. The music would be even more trailblazing. Very few debut indie albums would reach the heights the album would attain.
Funeral was recorded at Hotel 2 Tango recording studio in Montreal, Quebec on an analog recording format. The members of Arcade Fire produced, engineered and arranged the strings. Ryan Morey mastered, Mark Lawson was on recording and engineering and Thierry Amar assisted on recording. The title for the uninitiated was a reference to the recent passing of relatives for several band members. Funeral was a cathartic journey for the members through loss. The album yielded five singles, Neighborhood #1(Tunnels), Neighborhood #2 (Laika), Neighborhood #3 (Powers Out), Rebellion (Lies) and Wake Up. Funeral was nominated for best alternative album at the 2005 Grammys and made numerous “End of the Year” and “Decade End Lists”.
The album has the second most “End of Decade Top 10 List” entries only second to Radiohead’s “Kid A”. By November of 2005 it has sold ½ million copies an amazing feat for an independent release with minimal TV and radio exposure. With the release the band experienced small club bookings becoming larger bookings and a demand for the band at numerous large festivals, such as Coachella, Lollapaloosa, Sasquach, and the Reading and Leeds Festival. An additional boost to the album was Wake Up being played immediately prior to U2 taking stage during the 2005-2006 Vertigo Tour. Arcade Fire would eventually open for U2 for three shows, the third in Montreal where the band would appear with U2 for a cover of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. At one point Wake Up was a running gag for U2.com members teasingly asking what that song again, (And yes Lee that is the song!). Many a new fan was snagged upon hearing it at U2 concerts.
The magic of Funeral was Arcade Fire’s ability to blend small scale alternative with bigger than life anathematics. It is a record that swings for the fences and is loaded with beguiling contradictions. Somehow the band was able to offer up unapologetic splendor while steering away from ironic detachment. Neighborhood #1 is the introduction to the band’s entire career and certainly rises to that challenge. The song displays images of snowy blizzards and detached ineffective parents and a relationship that saves both protagonists. The relationship is portrayed as a force field protecting the pair from the cold and the world. The song describing one’s soulmate as the ultimate alchemist able to change their partner’s lead filled heart to gold. It is a beautiful heartfelt lovesong sung at what seems to be the end of all things. Having heard this song untold times you can forget just how large and glistening this song is as it builds to its climax. Win sings the heck out of this song filling it with both his despair and ecstasy.
Neighborhood#2 (Laika) is a gothic tinged song about child abuse. Poor Alexander is mistreated and unloved. As the lyric states”… you should have been named Laika.” The lyrics equating him to Laika the Soviet space program dog who doesn’t make it back alive. In the song everyone knows what is going on but nothing is done to change the reality, “When daddy comes home you always start a fight so the neighbors can dance in the police disco lights.” The percussion goes into overdrive on this song and makes it oh so catchy. It is a punchy hook laden tune, that once heard can’t be forgotten.
Une Annee San Lumiere (A year without light) is a softer more solemn song than the first two and has the beauty of an elegy. The title refers to the loss of a number of relatives for the band members during the year it was recorded, Win’s grandfather and Regine’s grandmother just two of the losses. The song’s message is that only the dead know what is next as we ride the horse of life with blinkers to the afterlife. “…Hey our old man should know if you see a shadow there is something there.” The song shifts from an elegiac pace to a rockout in the last third as it symbolically moves from the contemplation of death back into life.
Neighborhood #3 (Powers Out) is an amazing song that assists in carrying the album to its level of lofty admiration. There are various motifs utilized on this track. One motif is the allegory of the children playing the part of Diogenes seeking truth and the adults having long since given up covered in ice. “… cause nothing is hid from us kids, you ain’t fooling nobody when the lights are out.” Then there is the juxtapostioning of Christ’s admonition to not hide your light under a bushel. “… Light a candle for the kids, Jesus Christ don’t keep it hid.” The song declares that things need to change and not facing the true state of the world will not make it go away. “And the power is out in the heart of man, take it from your heart put it in your hand… and there’s something wrong in the heart of man.” It is an expansive song with a grand cacophony of glorious and numerous instruments.
Neighborhood #4 (Kettles) Is the point in the album where you start to catch the ebb and flow of energy in the album. Here a serene but pungent song following the prior anthem displaying fear over a dystopic future. The song points out how civilization has a tendency not to learn from its mistakes and makes them over and over again. “…but there’s some spirit I used to know that’s been drowned out by the radio.” Win projects amazing emotional clarity in his desperation, like a soul crying for relief. The song is a twist on Woody Guthrie’s folk stylings and is mournful and melancholy.
Crown of Love This song is a forerunner of many things the band would later attempt on their future releases. The disco feel at the end is a precursor for Reflektor. The dirge like musical accompaniment backs up the angst of the song. It examines disappointment in love real or imaginary. “… If you still want me please forgive me, the crown of love is not upon me.”
The grand single of the album, Wake Up is a beautifully constructed indie symphony and centerpiece to the album. It is without a doubt a stadium anthem. The song is both bittersweet and triumphant. Bittersweet as it points out the loss of innocence and hardening of our hearts as we grow into adulthood. Triumphant in the belief we can choose to turn back from that hardening. “If the children don’t grow up our bodies get bigger but are hearts get torn up… turning every good thing to rust.” This triumph is carried through by the guitar rift and the earth shaking percussion with a chorus that begs to be sung. This song spirals upwards to its scintillating conclusion. I always love “The Jam” like crescendo at the end of the song. The triumph of the song sustains the melancholy of the lyric, triumphant transcendence!
The album down shifts after that summit to Haiti with Regine Chassagne taking the vocals in an almost mystic hymn that examines the lost of many of Chassagne’s family members under Duvalier’s reign of terror in the 1960’s. Duvalier and his flunkies persecuted and slaughtered many opponents in purges. The song tells of the family fleeing to the forests to hide from the soldiers who killed her young cousins and their blood calling for justice. Those innocences haunt like ghosts who will not be silenced. The song accompaniment would mislead you if you not follow the narrative. It sounds almost jaunty as it accompanies the sorrow of what took place in Haiti. Only when you recognize the sound of alarms is there an indication that something very seriously wrong is taking place as it is being described in the prose of the song.
The selection Rebellion (Lies) returns to the percussive thump that pervades the album as Butler slides back into the lead vocals. The song examines how parents necessarily lie to their children and the inevitable angry realization by the kids that they have been lied to. The song goes on to draw parallels to society and the lies we are told and to demand that we open our eyes to injustice and don’t become complaisant. That complaisance here is equated with sleep. “Sleeping is giving in no matter what the time is. Sleeping is giving in so lift those heavy lids… every time you close your eyes, lies, lies.” This song has always been huge live, due to Win’s impassioned singing and the fantastic driving accompaniment.
The final song of the album is In the Backseat, Regine returns to the lead vocals with a dreamy almost Bjork like delivery. She conveys her struggles to take responsibility for her life, when it is oh so easy to remain in the backseat, safe and letting the grown ups decide, that is until death steps in and forces us to take the wheel. “I like the peace in the backseat; in the backseat I don’t have to drive…I’ve been learning to drive my whole life I’ve been learning.” The song is reminiscent of the Poet Anne Sexton’s confessional work in “Mercy Street”. In the back seat is the final elegy to the loved ones who are gone. “My family’s tree is losing all its leaves.”
Funeral is an expansive shimmering masterwork that propelled Arcade Fire from an unknown band in Montreal to the arena headliners they have become. The record set up their future career giving them the ability to follow up with their other stellar works, Neon Bible, The Suburbs, and Reflektor. Each of these latter albums has been just as uncompromising in their subject matter and experimentation. The band members individually are amazing musicians and the sum aggregate of these musicians is even more amazing. Funeral leaves such a legendary footprint behind because of the amazing courage and skill that were on display for an indie debut album. The band with Funeral earned every accolade and award given and that is why 10 years plus Funeral is still a beloved and revered album.