Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The Albums of 2004: Arcade Fire: Funeral

Release Date: September 14, 2004
Active Members: Win Butler, Regine Chassagne, Richard Reed Perry, Tim Kingsbury, Howard Bilerman, William Butler

Track listing: Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels); Neighborhood #2 (Laika); Un annee sums lumiere; Neighborhood #3 (Power Out); Neighborhood #4 (7 Kettles); Crown of Love; Wake Up; Haiti; Rebellion (Lies); In the Backseat

On their ironically titled debut album Funeral (attributed to the inordinate amount of losses members of the band experienced during the time of recording), Arcade Fire fired an opening salvo into the heady music scene of the 21st Century, one rife with fragmentation, segmentation, and the much written about decline of "the album."

Funeral set the tone for the albums to follow: emotive, cinematic, flush with surreal sublime imagery, culturally dynamic, and bold statements. Strands of the past intermingle: 1960s pop, avant garde influences from Velvet Underground to Brian Eno, punk sensibilities, and throw in all of Phil Spector's ambition. 

The "Neighborhood" sequence of four songs possibly take place at different points in history, or at alternating places at similar points in the past. "Neighborhood 1 (Tunnels)" may take place in the 1960s with the lyrical clue:

We let our hair grow long and forget all we used to know
Then our skin gets thicker from living out in the snow

Musically "Tunnels" brings the bombast of Bruce Springsteen's 1970s albums. Told from the point of a young man who who will be leaving the neighborhood with his girlfriend (a Springsteen trope), as he leaves friends and family behind. The story ends years later with him wondering what happened to everyone. 

"Neighborhood #2 (Laika)" begins with infectious pop with accordions, bells, and a child like punk Greek chorus:

Alexander, our older brother
Set out for a great adventure

A popular interpretation is that Alexander was a rebel living behind the Iron Curtain who tries to escape to the West. Win Butler has stated "Laika" is a reference to the dog the Soviets sent to space. Others see parallels to A Clockwork Orange or Into The Wild.  Like the narrator in "Tunnels" Alex escapes the neighborhood, but ends up right back where he began. By the last verse the rush of pop in the first verse settles into an acidic key as Alex fights with his father, ending on a note of sarcastic disillusionment as police lights turn the street into a disco, "Now the neighbors can dance." 

"Une Annee Sans Lumiere" is the interlude in the Neighborhood sequence, a suite that begins as a French pop song and ends with an onslaught of guitars.

"Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)" has a heavier pop intro with an industrial sound. Here the imagery gets more dystopic with lyrics of kids swinging on the power lines and families freezing to death with no hopes or plans. Possibly inspired by the power outages across Canada in 1998.

"Neighborhood #4 (7 Kettles)" may take place in the near future with our lonely narrator once again contemplating what's to come. Butler's vocal here is weary, almost defeated, pondering spiritual malaise and whether it's worth bringing children into a broken world "there's some spirit I used to know, that's been drowned out by the radio."

The second half of Funeral opens with "Crown of Love," a beautifully arranged folk ballad of loss and love. "Wake Up" would become an anthem for Arcade Fire, David Bowie himself would join them onstage at the Grammy's to perform it. "Wake Up" has the theatrics of Queen, The Who, and Bowie's 1977 triumph "Heroes." 

"Haiti" is about Chasagnne's native country and growing up in the shadow of authoritarianism. The soft Caribbean rhythms with Chasagnne's tender vocal sets a lighter tone for the rest of the album.

"Rebellion (Lies)" examines children, parents and the dynamics of rebellion. What leads to children to rebel? Is it the lies of adults? The song is obsessed with youth as many of their albums are, specifically the pain of being young. "Rebellion" also connects to the "Neighborhood" sequence from a more detached perspective.

"In the Backseat" is a tender meditation on loss and learning how to live, ending the record on a subdued and cautiously optimistic note.

Funeral launched Arcade Fire into the stratosphere, evidenced by the high anticipation for their 2007 follow up Neon Bible. Embraced by both hipsterdom and the rock establishment, Arcade Fire would plunge on ahead into maelstrom of the troubled years ahead, reeling between high fueled theatrics, jaded critics, treacherous political fault lines, and epic campaigns for relevance. 

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