They used to actually be a phenomenal band and Funeral is all the proof you need. Full of gang chants and guitar twitches, big band fever and Springsteen suburbia, Arcade Fire made a hopeful and triumphant rock record that fully deserved to be loud. With a handful of indie rock’s best tunes on it, it traversed a whole lot of death and even a bit of romance — “Crown of Love” is still their best, most heartfelt moment.
“Crown Of Love” hooked me from the very start, with a driving, edgy chord progression that continues essentially unchanged verse-to-verse except for the voices that are continually added to it throughout the song: first, drums and an out-of-tune piano provide a skeletal promise behind Win Butler’s ghostly narration. They’re soon joined by a sparse string section and light guitar, both wandering in accompaniment behind the frontman until he reaches the energetic climax of the song: a not-as-surprising-as-it-should-be “double time” that brings us home.
This sudden change of pace nearly four fifths through “Crown Of Love” would be out of place nearly everywhere else (except, strangely, “Wake Up,” the very next song on the album, where the same technique is repeated), but here, it’s simply the fulfillment of an energy that’s been building the entire song: the chord progression becomes so musically saturated that suddenly playing it twice as fast seems almost natural.
Before they got the nod of approval from the late King of, well, music David Bowie. Before they experimented with Haiti inspired music, drawing from Regine Chassagne’s origins, which shaped their latest album Reflektor. Before they managed to beat Lady Gaga, Eminem and Katy Perry to win the Grammy Award for Album Of The Year. Before all of this, Arcade Fire were just a group of friends, the main songwriters Win Butler and Chassagne being husband and wife, who loved to make music.
Made for $10,000 yet, at the time of writing, selling over 700,000 copies, Arcade Fire managed to strike gold on their first attempt with debut record Funeral which has left a mark on the indie rock scene that, since then, has yet to be matched. So just how did the band manage to make such a remarkable album and why is it so lauded by not only critics but by fans all over the world?
Just like other quintessential albums like Radiohead’s OK Computer, Funeral is very much a product of its time. In a post 9/11 world that was full of paranoia, fear and tragedy, there was a definite feeling of unrest that many found hard to shake off. Though many find the label “emo” revolting due to the colourfully dyed hairstyles and monster energy drink cans that will come to mind, Arcade Fire managed to show that emo stood for something which, unsurprisingly, is emotion. From the get go, the pain, the positivity, the lows and the highs are all documented in such a way that when you remember Butler describing the development of each new record as if they were making a film, you can’t help but nod in agreement
Let’s take opening track Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels) for example, a thematic opener that sets the scene for what’s to come. A model coming of age song, instrumentally it’s grand which is in no small part due to the seven members of the band: Butler, his younger brother Will, Chassagne, Richard Reed Parry, Tim Kingsbury, Jeremy Gara and former member Howard Bilerman. Every individual plays a key part in making the sound on Funeral feel as grand and open ended as the snow drenched streets and lands that Butler sings about so whimsically.
It’s no doubt down to the authenticity that makes Funeral feel like something much more than just an album. Family members were dying all around and, much like all great art, this tragedy and dire events fueled the band to make something special. The pain and frustration can be felt in every line and chord and what it evokes from the listener is something that even I, someone whose job it is to put things into words, finds hard to do so.
“Despite the title, Funeral is more like a baptism, an arrival, an affirmation of faith, a statement of purpose”, a statement that rings all too true in a post-funeral world where each and every one of Arcade Fire’s albums feels like it’s own entity. Funeral is an album that artists aspire to make, their very own magnum opus, that some never manage to create. Much like the sidewalk near the old apartment the band used to perform in, Arcade Fire have engraved themselves into the music history books and they did it all on their first try.