Albums of the Decade: Arcade Fire’s Funeral

12/21/2009 4:00 AM |

In the early months 2004, no one knew who Arcade Fire was. This would all change rather quickly, of course. There would be appearances with Bowie and Bono, the cover of TIME Magazine (the Canadian edition, but still), and meetings with the current President of the United States, but back then, two newlyweds and a handful of friends were splitting time between a dusty 24-track analog studio and their Montreal apartment, recording songs about the recent deaths of three family members while thousands of troops were being sent to Iraq, Bush and Kerry were hurtling towards a doomed election, the major-label record industry was collapsing, and the Killers were all the rage. Turns out, by the end of the year, Hot Fuss wasn’t the album that people were talking about. Funeral was.

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.