Between the heated global conflicts and an uneasy U.S. election, the political climate of 2004 was dreary at best. Like America, Arcade Fire had been banged up and bruised, yet they managed to make a record that swelled with compassion and hope. On opening track “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels),” Win Butler tells the tale of a snowstorm burying a neighborhood, wiping out all but a young couple that goes on to live a life together. By the time Funeral was released in mid-September of ‘04—exactly three years and three days after 9/11—the idea of escaping death in its omnipresence and having the chance to start anew was not only eerily relatable, but cathartic and beautiful. At first it plays like an Edward Gorey storybook, as macabre as it is whimsical, but as Funeral progresses, it keeps upping the emotional ante. There is a constant, palpable feeling of impending something—but the sense is that it’s not death or the end of the world. Arcade Fire sounds fearless, turning slow burning songs like “Une Année Sans Lumière” (“A Year Without Light”) on their head with off-the-cuff, chugging tempo changes and their trademark group-chorus hysterics that make everything sound so thrilling. This is not so much an album about death as it is an album about life, a notion no better illustrated than on the anthemic call to arms, “Wake Up.” Here, in the moment before the song goes down swinging into a total dance jig, they remind us that, “With [your] lightin’ bolts a glowin’ / [you] can see where [you’re] goin’ to be when the reaper / he reaches and touches [your] hand”: We better wake the hell up and live life while we can. It’s exactly what we needed to hear in the fall of 2004.
It just so happens that around this same time, indie rock was having a coming out party. There were Death Cab for Cutie shout-outs on The OC, Pitchfork was becoming the industry machine it is today, and Natalie Portman swore on the transformative powers of the Shins. People who, a year prior, couldn’t have cared less about a band signed to Merge Records suddenly had their ear to the ground, excited to see who would be crowned the Next Big Thing. Although it was a watershed year for underground weirdoes—Joanna Newsom, Devendra Banhart, the Fiery Furnaces and Animal Collective all cracked Pitchfork’s top 10 list—the conventional music press was still pretty much enthralled with the dwindling days of dance-punk. Franz Ferdinand was not only SPIN’s “Best New Band of ’04,” but the only record among their top five albums released by an independent label. (Fun fact: There’s no mention of Arcade Fire in their top 40 albums of the year, presumably because the issue was being sent to print not long after the record was released, and Funeral wasn’t leaked or sent out months in advance, since this was the Medieval Ages. They were named “Band of the Year” in their 2005 roundup, though.) So while the majority of these buzz bands, at least those championed by the mainstream media, were all about getting girls to dance, Funeral was a return to the days of 80s college radio where authenticity and substance trumped style— old school indie-rock purism. Butler told Rolling Stone that reading a Kurt Cobain biography while recording played a part, particularly a passage about what Krist Novoselic said at Cobain’s funeral: That the lesson Kurt left us was, with music, you just have to mean it. You just have to “bang it out.” Arcade Fire obviously aligns itself with Cobain's school of thought in that “meaning it” is the most essential part of an artist’s output. Substance is what separates indie from mainstream pop, no? It may be a polarizing argument, but for Arcade Fire, earnestness is a necessity, and at no point listening to the record or seeing them live does the thought ever creep up that maybe they’re faking it.
Haha.. we were kidding about all those other ones. This is obviously, objectively, the best record
ever of the decade.
Dec 23, 2009
Breakup records should not be this good.
Dec 23, 2009
After five years and three albums spent building something, Wilco decided to tear it down and start fresh. The music industry did the same thing. But it didn't exactly have a choice.
Dec 22, 2009
With the music industry in a perpetual downward spiral for much of the decade, it became difficult to blame bands for licensing their songs to corporations. When the money paid for records as brilliant as this one, it was impossible.
Dec 18, 2009
Once upon a time, the person we now know as the single most irritating figure in all of popular music was the most impressive artist the game had ever seen. It was fun while it lasted.
Dec 17, 2009
It was the most talked-about record of 2006, but when no one could quite make sense of it, they stopped trying. Doesn't make it less brilliant, but more.
Dec 16, 2009