Children, wake up – it’s album retrospective time. Ten years ago this week Arcade Fire unleashed Funeral, their hot-blooded, bighearted debut album on an unsuspecting music-listening public among which there was still no consensus as to the existence of a “the” in the group’s name. Ten years later, the collective is a Grammy-winning, festival-headlining dynamo vying for Band of Our Generation status. Scroll on down for our appropriately heartfelt tribute to Funeral, and hearken back with us to a time when snow was just beginning to fall on the neighborhood…
Nate Scott: It starts with the plinking piano, one that sounds as if coming to us from a long time ago. It ends with a ringing guitar riff, raw and simple. In between those two moments, Arcade Fire introduced the world to the universe as they saw it.
That universe, one where memories of the past and the present are intertwined in some weird, fantastical Neverland, is a universe they’d dabble in and eventually abandon as they grew as a band. But what’s striking to me listening back to this album is that, for a young band, their universe was so defined. Arcade Fire has always reminded me of a great fantasy novel in that way — what up, George R. R. Martin — in that their universe was fully imagined before the story even began.
On “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” the first track on the album Funeral, the story is a simple one: boy doesn’t like parents, boy escapes with girl, boy and girl have trouble looking back on their old lives as they grow older, but are occasionally hit with pangs of nostalgia.
That isn’t a unique or very interesting story. But the way Win Butler tells it, man. He sees a town buried in snow, the boy and girl digging tunnels through the snow and meet, the fantastic detail of the girl escaping through her chimney, the two running away and leaving their town buried…it’s the “hipster kid leaves lame town” narrative re-imagined as Where the Wild Things Are. (No mistake they appeared on that soundtrack, by the way.)
A lot can be said about Arcade Fire and its career, but it’s important to remember that the group entered the public world as a band with an album (with a song!) that already had a fully realized universe that it existed in. As any good fantasy writer will tell you, that’s the most important thing.
Justin McCarthy: It’s fun that their tours have become traveling regional cover jukeboxes, but it’s hardly surprising; Arcade Fire has always flaunted direct musical influences unabashedly and uncompromisingly, basically daring us to cry derivation. Funeral saw the band channeling, among others, Talking Heads, Bowie and The Pixies. These are pretty standard name-checks in indie rock – but they sure as hell mesh together nicely on “Neighborhood #2 (Laika).”
Something all those influences have in common: the ability to deliver whimsy and menace simultaneously, putting the listener in a paradoxically pleasurable state of unease. “Laika” makes you anxious – the staccato strings, the foreboding guitar distortion, the Byrne-esque barking, the inscrutable lyrics – but not in a bad way, especially if you know what comes next. A key aspect of this album’s brilliance: the fact that anxiety-inducing songs like these tee you up brilliantly for the emotive exhalation and cathartic power-gospel of the album’s back-end burners “Wake Up” and “Rebellion (Lies).”
So is “Laika” an assist song? The Pippen to the Jordan of “Wake Up”? Maybe, but Arcade Fire demonstrated a preternatural ability to field their songs (and influences) like a championship team on Funeral, and each player made a difference. Everyone gets a ring here: The Pixies, Pippen and “Laika” included.
Sean Kelly: A pleasantly simple riff in an alternate tuning, a beautiful call-and-response between two lovers in French, and then, in an inexplicable blink, we are overcome with pure, raw, hormonal, and never-to-be-seen again pubescent invincibility. If ever the millenials needed a teenage anthem worth a damn, it was best summed up in a few blistering guitar chords and a series of unintelligible yelps.
This is the moment that the indie generation, fed up with twee songs, had been waiting for: it’s urgent, it’s sweet, it’s bright-eyed but not naive, it’s communal, it’s simultaneously grandiose and cosmically minute, and it’s – above all else – genuinely cathartic. And it’s all rolled into one glorious huzzah. It’s the light that guides us through a year of darkness, our cry for help when we’re lost in alien neighborhoods, and the fire that warms us when loss evaporates the power out of our broken hearts.
Harry Hantel: The fourth song from Funeral should remind anyone that even with all their quirks and stylistic eccentricities, the Montreal band is, at its heart, a rock band, no qualifications necessary. With its pounding drumbeat and crunchy guitar riff, the third Neighborhood track rocks as much as anything they’ve done. It’s become a live staple over the past few years, and it’s easy to see why. Win Butler’s vocals reach a fever pitch on this song, and an air of desperation is palpable in his performance and in the overall pacing, as it hurtles towards its ending. There’s violin and xylophone, sure, but no matter – this is full-blooded Rock ‘n’ Roll.
Eric Atienza: There are no shortages of huge, sweeping, dramatic shifts on Funeral. Simple musical phrases repeated and built up into grandiose declarations are the record’s basic building blocks. There’s no more striking of a transformation, though, than the move from the high-impact, brash, jangly, raucous “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)” into the soft guitar picking, tentative strings, and quivering warble of “Neighborhood #4 (Kettles).” The mood and tempo of the record take a dive off of a cliff, and the difference between the two songs is like the shocking split between the deafening wind in your ears during free fall and the heavy, enveloping quiet once you break the water’s surface. It’s in that moment of sudden peace that the song’s quiet reflections overtake you with the reminder that life will always move at its own pace, and that no amount of planning, wanting, or anxiety will make it unfold faster. All that’s left to us is to take the changes as they come, especially if they are unexpected. And in the event that they are quiet and beautiful like “Kettles,” we should savor them as much as we possibly can.
Steven Edelstone: Located a few blocks away from my freshman year dorm, the Greek Theater might be the best place in America to see a show. The Greek is Will Butler’s favorite place to play, and it’s a couple blocks away from where Arcade Fire (allegedly) stole a basketball. I had seen a few shows there before, but something seemed special about Arcade Fire’s two night stint just days after The Suburbs dropped.
From the perfect opener of “Ready to Start” through the sing along of the second half of “Rebellion (Lies)” that carried through the break between the first set and the encore, the set list was on point, featuring deep cuts like “Ocean of Noise” and “The Well And The Lighthouse” that will likely never be played live again.
Prior to the show, I always thought “Crown of Love” was Arcade Fire’s most underrated song, but never would have thought it would be the absolute highlight of their live show. Yes, it’s one of the slowest songs in the set list, but the track’s raw emotionality coupled with Win’s octave-up scream gave me goosebumps like few other live songs have. While the double-time ending crescendo mirrors “Wake Up,” it just felt more powerful and life-affirming than ever in the Greek under the California stars. I still frequently talk about that concert like it was yesterday. Just as Win Butler struggled to move past the girl from “Crown of Love,” I can’t get past how perfect the show was.
Jia Tolentino: Arguably the climax of Funeral’s push toward expansive, harrowing ecstasy — and certainly one of the moments when the collectivity of Arcade Fire’s live set coalesces and peaks — “Wake Up,” with that beating-heart thud and wordless chorus roar, has always been one of big indie’s best plays for the arena-rock throne. It’s got our generation’s McSweeney’sversion of a degenerate “Born to Run” cry (If the children don’t grow up / Bodies get bigger but our hearts get torn up — and then that howl — We’re just a million little gods causing rainstorms! Turning every good thing to rust!) tempered with the sort of deliberately off-kilter intimacy and angled control that marked Arcade Fire at their best. What other band would de-escalate sideways like “Wake Up” does in its last quarter, splintering all that momentum into feather-light shards of glass?
Emma Forster: “Haïti” isn’t easy to pin down: it’s in English, it’s in French; it’s charmingly upbeat, its lyrics are full of painful imagery; it’s rarely mentioned on “Best Of” Arcade Fire lists (the Internet is stocked with them — even Lorde doesn’t give the track a nod [because that matters?]), and yet it is one of the band’s most complex, profound, and beautiful songs to date. A hidden gem on an album brimming with rubies and emeralds, we tend to overlook “Haïti” in favor of the now-classic “Neighborhoods,” the more immediately accessible tunes — tracks that upon her first consumption a then-14-year-old-Emma, too, favored. However, this tribute to Régine Chassagne’s homeland and to the unborn children killed under the Duvalier regime, masked (much like the troubles of the country) under a cheerful facade, is the song that ten years hence continues to intrigue me emotionally, intellectually, and aurally. Not to undermine any of the other songs on Funeral. Album’s a goddamn masterpiece.
Charles Bramesco: In the musical theatre game, the term “11 o’clock number” refers to a show-stopping tune that arrives around the end of a two-act musical (theaters would often raise the curtain at 8:30, so songs of this nature usually ran at 11). The idea was that a massive number near the grand finale of a show would leave the audience with a melody stuck in their heads as they filed out of the auditorium, and electrify patrons growing weary as the show rolled into its second hour. Arcade Fire has pulled this trick on all of their full-length albums; “No Cars Go”, “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” and “Afterlife” all serve a similar purpose. But none of them match the liberating highs of “Rebellion (Lies).” By the time they reach track nine, this battalion of baroque resistance fighters have raked the listener’s emotions over some blisteringly hot coals — though they smartly save their most lacerating gut-punch for last — and they’re ready to raise up those faithful enough to stick around through the end. As a reward for weathering the bruising valleys of “Crown of Love,” Arcade Fire sounds a call to arms that starts in a snow-suffocated town and grows in size until it encompasses an entire nation fighting for family, safety, sanity, love, the sun, the moon, the truth — it’s all alright.
Peter Enzinna: We’re at the end of the album, the last stop on the tour of grief. If you’re 14-year-old me, new to Arcade Fire, new to most of this Indie Music that all of a sudden defines you, you’re not listening. For the first year or so of listening to Funeral, the headphones were off after “Rebellion.” I don’t know. The mincing, the wafting — it bored me, and I was the kind of 14-year-old to dip on a track when its first ten seconds bored me. Finally some switch flipped, I stuck it out, and a corresponding switch flipped in the song — the unbearable pitch of despair that it reaches came through. Regine Chassagne’s wordless wail is the one that really wracks the gut — on an album rotten with death, Alice, her grandmother, is the only one directly said to have died. On an album much noted for its sense of drama, even its histrionics, we pull into the final stop with resignation to what lies ahead. All my life I’ve been learning, and we understand it’ll be so for the rest of her life as well — always learning, never knowing. Funeral stands as a stark monument in the musical landscape of the new millennium — both a mature and an indelibly youthful work, where the unswallowable obelisk of loss against which “In the Backseat” brushes up doesn’t detract from its soaring heights of hope. It couldn’t but end with an admission of life’s insolvability; would we still be talking about it if it wrapped up nicely?