Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Arcade Fire: Funeral (2004)



Funeral was a record of the moment; you could only get away with it once in a lifetime. The benefactors of this lifetime were a merry collection of wandering Canadians (by way of Texas, New Hampshire, Haiti, you name it) led by husband and wife Win Butler and Régine Chassagne; the quaintly named Arcade Fire's technical amateurishness (none of them can play their instruments very well, and if you've heard them attempt anyone else's songs as cover versions, you know they lack even the chops of the average bar band) was compensated for in kind by their enthusiasm and chutzpah -- put simply, by the way that they seemed like overexcited young adults just like you and me trying to make good on a dream. It's useful to read the Merge Records history volume Our Noise to find how a series of nothing more than mere coincidences led to the creation of Funeral and a decade's worth of yearning for the moment of Funeral to somehow occur again, which it cannot.

What a sight they were then! Those of us who were disgusted by the shrugging disaffection of the indie rock scene circa 2003 and 2004 were sufficiently thrown by Butler's closed-eyes, soul-stirred growling, Chassagne's unfettered bouncings around the room and the rest of the band's widescreen shouting, pounding, shaking that it wasn't uncommon to assume they were some sort of post-modern gag. One of my few memories of the band from the actual year of their explosion is of hearing "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)" and thinking it was some 120 Minutes band doing a song for a Disney movie. Which wasn't far off, of course; Funeral is especially focused on childhood (at least three songs coulda been in an earlier adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are), and on an absence of filtering -- among other things, it sees no shame in feeling good, the building and building in this first song and its wooooo, wooooo peak an oblique pop catharsis that the Pitchfork brigade gave themselves permission to enjoy.

And this in the year that bands like Radio 4, Franz Ferdinand and Interpol were not just making waves in the alternative circles but getting MTV airplay. At least one of those was a really good band, but all three typified the blackened mood of the times: Joy Division and Television without the high stakes or the emotional intensity. Arcade Fire, of course, were not alone in changing that; this was also the year that the beauty-subservient Walkmen, genuine personable oddball Joanna Newsom and actual old-world singer-songwriters John Darnielle and Sam Beam broke into something like the indie mainstream, Modest Mouse into the mainstream at large. But Funeral was by a longshot the highest profile dimming of the slanty-eyed, disaffected dreadpop. That doesn't make it the beginning of a movement, just an easy marker of a changing attitude. "Laika" (sorry, could never remember which neighborhood was which) has an accordion, for heaven's sake.

"Laika" actually sounds like the popular indie rock of the time, just slightly opened up. That probably wasn't a marketing tool but it could've been a brilliant one, so slightly skewing the perceptions at the time of what you would be noticed and pointed out least for listening to in the post-Blank Wave Arcade period. Its persuasive, sing-song lullaby melody is contrasted handily by "Power Out," the big rock move of the first half whose crazy, shouted enthusiasm is also just a few paces off from sounding perfectly at home with semi-pop rock music of the prior few years. The sweet lilts and sad driving memories here and there are thus neatly offset, although "7 Kettles" is an unmistakable indication of where the band's heart truly was: a hypnotic ballad built on a simple, repeated riff, it plays in harrowing, half-remembered images ("all the neighbors startin' up a fight") and goofy clichés ("watched pot," ugh).

But the back half of the record, freed of some of the conceptual weight, is more telling. "In the Back Seat" is Chassagne's sweet enough Björk attempt, except unsubtle and a little clunky -- altogether fearless. Chassagne also sings lead on what may still be the band's best song, the loping bass dance and enthusiastically hazy "Haiti," forecasting the half-sung half-yelped mastery of Love Is All in a couple of years, to Vampire Weekend's accused co-opting of international and ceremonial music in a few more. "Wake Up" presumably needs no introduction, again stocking up on phrases that sound stupid beyond purpose in isolation but attain a strange weight as sung by Butler ("look out for love"; "my heart's colder and I can see that it's a lie") as it borrows the affected, united bravado of the Police and a barroom Springsteen singalong. Both that major keynote and the prior "Crown of Love" feature surprising, explosive tempo changes that are delightfully manic and uncool, and this after "Crown of Love" already moved from a plodding introduction into a weird, mournful Jerry Butler power play. All of this, you must understand, is performed seamlessly, each song logically giving way to the next and all of it playing with what every critic in America fell over themselves to cite as, uh, a complete lack of irony.

It's strange that we ever think to praise things for an absence of irony; smarminess is one thing, but most of us equate irony with nothing less than the essence of wit and humor, and the abstraction that makes most art interesting and worthwhile. "Sincerity" seems a more apt phrase for what Funeral brought forth and what made it change the indie rock conversation, if hardly the fabric of anything larger. For many listeners, it was not so much the "beginning of a new age," in Lou Reed's phrase, as the last gasp of the way we all used to catch up with and experience music. There would be hip hop and pop records that would have far greater impact than this one and would carry forward the sense of community once so important to the pop experience, but Funeral may indeed be the last straightforward, guitar-based rock record distributed the old-fashioned way that was in some sense a communal discovery.

And as you know, it owns that distinction proudly -- from the football chanting of "Une année sans lumiere" (good lord, were they serious?) to the arm-waving burst of a tower of wordless wailing on "Wake Up," it sounds like a communal experience. It also predicates much of its gravity not on any kind of illusions about its own depth (we'd say "pretension" but we've been instructed to put that word on hiatus) but on a sense of wonder melded with unabashed melodrama. Where have we heard that before, eh? Oh, U2 and the Alarm, sure, and Springsteen, but what made Arcade Fire a wonderful entity in 2004 -- and to some extent now, although they've changed direction quite drastically since then -- was that they put Shadow Morton in the Bush era. These songs may not be about crying yourself to sleep because your mom doesn't want you dating that boy, but the proud traditions of girl group pop are carried forth anyway, especially to anyone who grew up in such a manner as to have once longed for the ability to dig a hole to a friend's bedroom where you could hide from your parents' fighting, or to have experienced that pang of conscious stupidity that marked first love for so many of us. There's an innocence to these feelings, and to their expression, that is reassuring on one's discovery of the record and remains a comfort on each subsequent visit.

With the mild exception of Lesley Gore, who did sing about independence and jealousy from a more grown-up standpoint, the Shangri-Las and their peers never really sought to capture the experience of forming into adulthood, more specifically of marrying, coping with aging and death, and starting a family. Arcade Fire deserve kudos for their poetic struggles with disconnection, love and regret even if they express them far more strongly musically than lyrically -- whereas melodrama in rock & roll typically signifies either youthful naivete or political upheaval, for this band it has always been a pretext for shedding a fear of one own's skin, of one's personal failings and destiny. It seems as if the message many listeners received from Funeral was that they were allowed to be excited about something, and allowed to decide how they reacted to it. That's a silly thing to learn from a rock band, or is it?

By Neon Bible just three years later, the illusion would all be shattered; politics would intrude, the band would become slightly better, the songs considerably more complete and well-crafted, and the production and arrangements meatier, more confident. But it's hard not to understand why some have been disappointed with every move Arcade Fire have made since this well-timed moment of clarity and intensity, or why the band went crawling back to a number of the same images from a more adult perspective on the flabbier The Suburbs, which hit #1 and won a Grammy probably not for its own content, good as it was, but for the memories of late nights listening to Funeral instilled in the by-now-late-twentysomethings who heard it, absorbed by osmosis into the culture at large.

I personally missed Funeral's moment. I heard Neon Bible fairly quickly and fell hard for it (I go back and forth but I'm pretty sure it still means more to me than this), but never got around to listening to its predecessor until nearly five years after its release, and yet one curious effect of its particular magic is that I feel like I was there when it was at its most popular and hard-hitting. I can sense completely what its dogged champions are hearing in it, and this is a good sign for its longevity. It was probably easy to roll your eyes at this album at the time, as it always is for a band this unflappably earnest, and there's considerable merit to the idea that we all ("we" being theoretical here) overrated the album in 2004 -- that it's so familiar and second-nature in its disciples that there's no real point in listening to it, and anyway it's always playing better and stronger than we remember in our own heads anyway.

But you're supposed to pick up Funeral and fall hard for it and then scoff at yourself for being taken in by its excesses and brightly colored, wide-eyed ferocity a few years later. You're supposed to realize that maybe you were indulging in this and feeling really cool about it because you sort of missed your Pearl Jam records and longed for something that didn't seem to be sonically shrugging its shoulders all the time but lord knows you didn't want to be seen carting Ten around, but now you realize it's okay to listen to whatever you want and you like Pearl Jam again. (Full disclosure: I still don't care for Pearl Jam.) Then maybe you get philosophical and Funeral comes out of the woodwork again and you realize that its value in venting your pumped-up excitement and misty-eyed self-pity are rock & roll at its highest, purest, most useful and good-hearted. Whatever. The point is that this same cycle is just as likely to start in 2013 as it was in 2004. Funeral is here to stay, and we needn't feel left out if we missed its extraordinary center-stage moment of glory. It starts all over again as soon as we press play.

Arcade Fire EP (2003)
Neon Bible (2007)
The Suburbs (2010)

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