Arcade Fire's 'Funeral' Turns 10: Classic Track-by-Track Album Review

Album Review
Courtesy of Merge Records

Arcade Fire's sprawling set-up is like a small community onstage, but at its core, the band is the songwriting duo of husband and wife Win Butler and Régine Chassagne. Both lost a grandparent during the recording of their debut album, and the theme of death dominates Funeral, released Sept. 14, 2004 on Merge. But Funeral doesn’t simply dwell on death; it connects it to childhood naivety and paints a narrative of life itself. It’s heavy and pretty damn serious at times, but also crucially uplifting. Ten years later, this is why it has endured so well.

Funeral, an expansive, shimmering opus, arrived at a time when the much simpler garage and post-punk revivals were dominating alternative music. But it also coincided with the first season of The O.C. and Garden State’s soundtrack -- a time when alternative fans were ready for well-meaning indie bands to change their lives. For those out of high school, it was difficult to connect with the number of emo bands sharing their myraid feelings -- but what about a well-disguised, adult emo band that could sit nicely alongside their Sufjan Stevens records?

Two albums later, Arcade Fire won the Grammy for Album of the Year for The Suburbs, a spot usually reserved for standards, classic rock, and adult contemporary. A year later, the like-minded Bon Iver won Best New Artist and it seemed critically acclaimed indie had become a new form of adult contemporary. Some say Arcade Fire are their generation’s U2 -- a once-small band with very serious aspirations who moved onto arenas after the critics were conquered. If this is true, at least there’s still plenty of time before Arcade Fire’s “Vertigo” moment.

How did Arcade Fire come this far? Ten years after the release of their debut, Billboard takes a track-by-track look at Funeral:

"Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)”: And so it begins -- twinkling ivories and distant strings sound like the start of a great adventure, and that’s just what Arcade Fire has in store. Running away from home is a frequent motif in adventure tales, and on the first of four “neighborhood” Funeral tracks, our protagonists are teenaged lovers who yearn to escape the oppression of their suburban lives. The couple flees their parents’ bedrooms through secret tunnels and then it's “Meet me in the middle/ the middle of the town/ And since there's no one else around/ We let our hair grow long/ And forget all we used to know.” For romantic dreamers like Arcade Fire, this sweetly swelling ode isn’t an introduction to an album, but an introduction to a whole career.

"Neighborhood #2 (Laïka)”: Where "Neighborhood #1” was pensive and hopeful, its follower is visceral and desperate. With a little accordion to fancy up the thrashing guitars, Butler sings of domestic violence, suicidal thoughts, and falling out touch with one’s past. “Our mother should have just named you Laïka,” they sing in the chorus, linking the song’s wayward character to the dog the Soviets shot into space in 1957; she became the first animal in orbit but did not return alive. Visceral and raw, the song’s breakdowns found themselves as a point for Arcade Fire to explore any and all forms of percussion in live performances.

"Une Année Sans Lumière”: Translated into “A Year Without Light,” track three breaks from the neighborhoods pattern, but thematically remains in the realm of Funeral’s opener. After the fury of “Laïka,” we’re soothed again by Butler’s romantic heart, as he finds love with his partner amidst a disapproving father and surrounding death. An uptempo time change in the song’s crescendo previews even bigger about-faces ahead and leads us into a more aggressive movement just around the corner.

"Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)”: On the jarring "Neighborhood #3,” Arcade Fire pours the themes already introduced on tracks one through three an explosive anthem. Ominous bass slides set the mood, and when the twinkly verses crescendo, Butler’s vocals can’t help but break into a scream. Again, a town is left in darkness, parents are of no help, and the children are left to blindly search for hope. It’s like saying “The kids aren’t alright,” but doing so with poetic excellence.

"Neighborhood #4 (7 Kettles)”: It’s around this point in Funeral that you realize Arcade Fire knows exactly how an album should ebb and flow. The rage of “Power Out” dissipates into the serenity of “Kettles,” as Butler turns inward. He fears for his “unborn kids” in a dystopian future… so much that he’s lead to the toxic couplet, “They say a watched pot won't ever boil/ You can't raise a baby on motor oil.”

"Crown of Love”: This majestic plea for forgiveness finds Arcade Fire waltzing into the dramatic side B of Funeral. Side A was dramatic in its own right, but a drive through this band’s musical neighborhoods was hardly enough to prepare first time listeners for the arena-sized ambitions to come. “Crown of Love” jolts us to attention with a dramatic time change two thirds in; it’s a rousing dance outro reminiscent of where the band headed on its last two albums, especially the James Murphy-assisted Reflektor.

More on Arcade Fire:

"Wake Up”: For many, this is Funeral’s centerpiece. “Wake Up” storms out of the gate like an indie symphony, with two indomitable verses, punctuated by sweeping choral harmonies. Régine Chassagne takes on lead vocal duties for the first time during the bridge, and the band shimmies through a jaunty outro. Like the band itself, “Wake Up” eventually ventured to realms no one ever expected: U2’s setlist, an NFL commercial, the pre-game introduction for world-famous hockey and soccer teams.

“Haiti”: Chassagne’s parents fled Haiti in the 1960s during a harsh dictatorship, which saw the killings of some of their siblings. In this mystic hymn, Chassagne reaches out of the spirits of her family tree, musing on a “second birth” of all those lost during the reign of former Hatian President Francois Duvalier. For 2013’s Reflektor, Arcade Fire recorded with Haitian musicians and reported “life-altering experiences” on the island during the creative process.

"Rebellion (Lies)": Seamlessly flowing over from the waning notes of “Haiti,” the percussive thump that opens “Rebellion” proclaims the arrival of Funeral’s greatest anthem. Taking back the lead vocal duties, Butler returns to Funeral’s pervasive theme of childhood. The song’s about how parents are really lying when they tell their kids they have to go to sleep early; day or night, Butler urges them to rebel. Now four albums into Arcade Fire’s career, the luminous chorus of “Lies! Lies!” remains one of the band’s finest moments.

"In the Backseat”: Many compared Régine Chassagne's vocals to Bjork when they first heard them, and on the Funeral closer, it’s easy to hear why. Backed by a cozy string suite, Chassagne revisits the mysticism of “Haiti,” and muses on losing her mother to a car crash. She’s still afraid to drive, and despite the peace of the backseat, she fears she’s lost control in her life. Whether it’s Chassagne or Butler at the helm, Funeral poignantly navigates these themes of childhood and death. That’s the continuum of life right there. Heavy stuff, right? Bands came along and copied Funeral to lesser returns, but 10 years later, its emotional core sounds just as lasting as its inspirations.


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