Arcade Fire – Funeral

Funeral (2004)


1. Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels) 2. Neighborhood #2 (Laika) 3. Une Année Sans Lumiere 4. Neighborhood #3 (Power Out) 5. Neighborhood #4 (7 Kettles) 6. Crown Of Love 7. Wake Up 8. Haiti 9. Rebellion (Lies) 10. In The Back Seat


What is it about albums with beige covers that make critics totally flip their shit? It all started with Harvest way back in the 70s, and ever since then, something about a combination of mopey, emotional indie rock and muted earth tones always brings out reviewers’ most effusive praise. There’s In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, there’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and this pretty much universally beloved collection of would-be uber-catharsis.

I guess I’m not one to talk, considering the big, sloppy, 1500-word blowjob I gave Foxtrot a couple of years ago. But I think Aeroplane is one of the whiniest, most overrated albums ever (a few catchy folk rock tunes, albeit largely marred by Jeff Mangum NOT SHUTTING THE FUCK UP YOU ASSHOLE? Yes. The ultimate treatise on life, death, and longing? Um, fuck no). And honestly I’m not too big on Funeral either. Don’t get me wrong, I have listed to it many, many times over the last few weeks, and it has grown on me to some extent during that time. But for an album that’s so deliberately, effusively, over-the-top emotional, it leaves me with an oddly empty feeling when it’s over. And I don’t mean like a bleak, numb feeling spurred by the album’s immersion into despair, death and longing. I mean that I just don’t connect with Win and Regine on this album much at all. Does that mean I’m dead inside? I did accidentally step on a pigeon once when I was 4 and laughed when it happened, so maybe (don’t worry, the pigeon flew away unharmed, so I presume he went on to live a long and happy life eating garbage and shitting on people by the East River). But whatever the case may be, without that deep emotional connection that most fans seem to have with Funeral, I’m left to subsist mainly on the chord changes, melodies, and creative, jacked-up arrangements – and there’s a lot to like in that regard. But enough to deem this thing a classic? Hell no.

I think the issue for me is that, more often than not on Funeral, Win and the gang’s expressivity comes across less as intense, deep-seated passion and more as just, um, angst. The whole mythos behind the album is that it was conceived during a time of great strife as the band’s families were gripped with onsets of devastating mortality. So pervasive is this element of the album’s backstory among critics that before I eventually looked up the actual details, I assumed that during the sessions Regine’s parents were mauled by a bear and the drummer died of leukemia or something. Must have been, because these guys were definitely awfully sad about something. Turns out all that happened was Win Buter’s grandfather and Regine’s grandmother dying not long before the making of the album. Now, I would never ever discount the devastating emotional impact that these deaths apparently had on the young troubadours of the Arcade Fire; losing a loved one is always hard, even elderly ones whose time is just up, and maybe Win and Regine were particularly close with their grandparents. But dude, if your grandpa dying of natural causes is the worst thing that’s ever happened to you, then you’ve led a pretty charmed life full of snooty prep schools and pickup basketball against short white people, and maybe songs about how life is full of darkness and pain aren’t the best fit for you.

There’s only one song about real heavy shit here – “Haiti,” on which Regine laments the violent dictatorship that drove her parents from their home country and resulted in the killing of some of their relatives. See, now, that’s the kind of shit that’s worth having existential crises about. Not “I grew up in the suburbs and it was boring so life is meaningless.” Unfortunately, it’s one of the least musically interesting songs on the album – just some pleasant mid-tempo folksy strumming that doesn’t really build up anywhere. In that sense, it’s basically the opposite of much of the rest of the album, which consists mainly of narcissistic whining arranged and produced in really intricate, sweeping, instrumentally diverse ways that make it sound like Win, Regine, and co. are saying REALLY IMPORTANT things when they’re not actually. Fortunately, the music itself is at times marvelous and affecting even when the lyrics aren’t.

As with Arcade Fire, I prefer the relatively subdued moments on Funeral to the raucous, abrasive ones like “Neighborhood #2” and “Neighborhood #3” and even “Wake Up” (which I know is beloved, and yes, that huge, churning guitar riff feels like it’s about to steamroll you right over when it starts up, but after the intro I just don’t feel like it ever gets out of first gear and just sort of grinds along for too long. Sorry. Maybe I’m just biased cause apparently U2 used to play it over the PA as their entrance music and I am predisposed against falling in love with any song that Bono also likes). Like the pleasant and melodic guitar arpeggio-based “Une Année Sans Lumiere” (which I’m glad they used a French title for, because the English translation, “A Year Without Light,” is way too emo for me) and especially the opening “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels),” which feels at once hopeful and despondent and makes excellent use of a simple ascending piano/guitar lick. What’s more, the song actually does seem to be about teen angst and rebellion rather than adult concerns told from a teenager-ish perspective, which may be why it feels more emotionally resonant to me than the other songs on here. Yes, both songs kick into higher gears eventually, the former with a shouty double time coda and the latter with some piano pounding and the exact same four-on-the-floor beat that seems to pop up in like three different songs on this album (hey, nobody has ever mistaken these guys for virtuosos… once you’ve found a drumbeat you can play without losing the timing, then stick with it, you know?). But those sections feel more earned than other parts of the album that just feel like CATHARSIS CATHARSIS CATHARSIS AHHHHHHHH.

There is one unequivocal masterpiece on Funeral, and it’s actually the album’s most uptempo number: “Rebellion (Lies).” That propulsive bed of piano and bass, those violin interjections, those hooky “Liii-iies, liii-iies” backing vocals are enough to get my heart pumping at a moment’s notice. But the true genius of this song is its bold and striking use of modulation during the chorus, when the song changes key no less than three times, and each time completely altering the mood of the “Every time you close your eyes” refrain, going from confident to unsettled to hopeful to resigned. Using a very simple musical tool like that to create a powerful emotional impact is just straight up brilliant songwriting, and any band capable of something like it is clearly capable of far more than just bellowing angst. On Funeral, Arcade Fire could have made that clear a little more often.

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