Counterbalance No. 34: The Arcade Fire’s 'Funeral'
Jason Mendelsohn and Eric Klinger got into a fight so that the neighbors could dance in the police disco lights. But since disco is passé, no one showed up. This week in Counterbalance, the Arcade Fire's Funeral.
Mendelsohn: This is a special album, Klinger. Special. It's in the top 50 on the Great List and it was released within the last ten years. Considering that most of the albums we've talked about thus far are pushing middle age, what kind of album could catapult an untested band of nobodies from Canada into the holy rock and roll canon? I'll tell you what kind—the special kind.
Klinger: Is it? Is it special? I’ve been kind of back and forth on this album ever since I first heard a track from it and decided it not only sounded like the Pixies, as was the style at the time, but I decided it specifically sounded like “Velouria” (as I listen to the album now, though, I have no idea which song that could have been). So grumpy old me put the record aside, assuming it was something I needn’t concern myself with.
Meanwhile, though, while I was doing other things, the Arcade Fire continued to grow slowly in stature, even as a lot of other bands from that more innocent time fell by the wayside. And along with that, apparently, the respect for Funeral has far outstripped my shortsighted 2004 expectations. Outstripped them embarrassingly, in fact. But you used the word “canon” up there, Mendelsohn, and even though this album is irrefutably ranked in the upper-upper reaches of the Great List, I’m still reluctant to call it canonical.
Mendelsohn: It’s special because apparently everyone with an Internets connection loved it. Which is weird, because people on the Internets normally just hate things and then call it a day. But I digress. I think the song you were thinking about is "Rebellion (Lies)", which does sound vaguely Pixie-ish, but then again, most bands post-1991 sound vaguely Pixie-ish. Personally, I think the Arcade Fire sounds mostly like David Bowie -- all of David Bowie. Take Bowie's entire catalog, compress it down to under an hour and you might get something like Funeral, but with less shouting.
Anyway, when you get right down to it, isn't the Great List and the Canon the same thing? Sure, the "canon" conjures images of classic tomes, and stuffy libraries and an impenetrable citadel guarded by the Criticerati, but why are we trying so hard to make something ephemeral into something empirical? It's all conjecture -- a list based on the lists made by people who's only real basis for such a list was their own opinion. That's the sum of the Great List. The canon is the same, but it just gets to wear a more expensive hat. None of it is based on any real science -- except for Henrik Franzon's algorithm. The rest of it is based on fake science, like global warming and evolution and gravity. The only thing we can really say is Arcade Fire's Funeral was loved so much and so hard over the past seven years that it has managed to beat out the likes of U2, Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder, Neil Young, and a host of other classic, canonical artists we haven't even had a chance to talk about yet.
Klinger: The Great List is indeed lovingly compiled with mathematical precision, and it codifies the vagaries of human opinion. And in creating this list, I’d say that a list of albums is emerging that starts to tell the story of post-WWII popular music. If a 12-year-old kid wanted to get started in the world of rock nerdery (a noble pursuit if ever there was one), these first hundred albums would be an ideal starting point.
So it would be understood that a person trying to make sense of pop music should be conversant in these albums, keeping in mind that whole segments of music are being represented by stand-ins (Appetite for Destruction, Dark Side of the Moon, Kind of Blue). For the time being, post-Radiohead indie-style rock appears to be represented by Funeral. You’re far more plugged into this stuff than I am, Mendelsohn. Is this a wise choice?
Mendelsohn: Sure. Were there “indie” albums that I liked better than Funeral? Absolutely. But none of these albums were strictly “indie” for various reasons -- too much country, too signed to a major label, too classic rock, too avant-garde, too signed to another major label, too much folk influence, too much like Radiohead to be post-Radiohead, too straightforward rock and so on and so forth. Without having to actually define “indie”, because defining it is a quagmire onto itself, let's just say none of the bands listed above fit nicely into the slot.
Arcade Fire, on the other hand, had indie written all over it. They were from Canada, they have eight or 12 or 16 band members some of whom play string instruments (with bows!), they have two drummers, they all live in a church or some such nonsense and they were signed to Merge Records, a bastion of indie music. On top of that they put out a record that wasn't just all jangly guitar rock. Funeral was expansive, with classical underpinnings and an overwrought sense of operatic majesty and angst based on the claustrophobic pressures of the suburbs. Basically, it took all the right cues from indie rock (i.e., aped the Pixies) and tossed in something new, something the indie rock scene didn't have much of -- grandiosity in music, not just in image. You might want to look at it this way: Funeral is the millennial generation's Born to Run.
Klinger: That’s very helpful for us premillennial types. I think it’s that unalloyed epic sweep of Funeral that resonated so much with people who’d had their fill of ironic detachment. The New Pornographers might have been able to put together songs as big as the “Neighborhood” suite of songs, but they’d sound like they were kidding.
I’m also hearing a massive early ’80s influence in this disc, something that I think ties in with your earlier Bowie comment, and for some reason that comes through most clearly in “Crown of Love”, especially as it makes that dramatic segue into the quite nearly discofied outro (and then that song’s shift into the Big Music sound of “Wake Up” -- which then hits that bit that sounds like General Public!).
But I think the fact that the Arcade Fire’s influences are hard to immediately pin down is part of their appeal. Funeral pivots around enough and employs enough interesting textures to make people feel like they’re doing something daring while not challenging them too much. That might sound like more of a dig than I mean it to, but there you have it.
Mendelsohn: No, you're right. Arcade Fire, intentionally or not, have managed to mask Funeral's sonic origins, which has more to do with the wide ranging influences that keep popping up every other minute than anything else. It's hard to put your finger on an aural visage that won't stop shifting. But that brings me to the reason why I ultimately think Arcade Fire are deserving of a spot in the canon and on the Great List. It was their ability to synthesize the past 50 years of music into a coherent whole and then distill it down into chunk of easily digestible material. We've talked at length about the Beatles' ability to codify what they were hearing around them and then turn it out in their records, or the Rolling Stones loving recreation of American blues, or even Bob Dylan's adjustments to the folk model; the Arcade Fire has done the same except they took a half century of musical styles--not just rock or blues or folk, but everything that came filtered through their predecessors -- and created Funeral.
The Arcade Fire were in a unique position to make this album. They had the benefit of decades of material to reference and in Funeral they pushed their way to the head of the pack at a time when indie rock was morphing from the cool music that only college kids cared about to the cool music that everybody cared about. I don't want to say they got lucky, but... right place, right time?
Klinger: Quite possibly, but your analogy is a double-edged sword. It’s kind of like when you mix up all the paints into one and get brown, or when you out some of every soda in your cup when you were a kid. As we write this, I’m having a hard time keeping the songs straight in my head or remembering specific melodies -- and I’ve been listening to this repeatedly over the past few weeks. It’s all blending into a beige-ish swirl for me. This may explain why, as much as I admire Arcade Fire and am pleased for their recent success, I’m reluctant to say that I’m actually excited by Funeral, and I’m still unconvinced that they will remain Canonical in years to come. I guess in some ways I’m still that skeptical old cuss from the halcyon days of 2004.
Mendelsohn: That's a bit over simplisitic. I think Arcade Fire is much more nuanced then you give them credit for. This is the first album on the list that is several generations removed from the advent of rock and roll. The cultural touchstones that the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, or Dylan used to shape their music are beyond the reach of the Arcade Fire. The reference points they have to use are the bands that used the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Dylan as touchstones. Funeral is layer upon layer upon layer of musical reference. As a whole, it may sound beige, but if you get up close what you would see would be more Jackson Pollock than beige swirl.
I'd be willing to bet a dollar this album will still be hanging around the top of the list twenty years from now.
Klinger: You’re on. If I win, leave your dollar with the receptionist at the old folks’ home.