Arcade Fire coalesced in Montreal, Quebec, and recorded their debut album Funeral during one of that city’s arduous winters. Band members migrated to the Canadian metropolis from various parts of North America, and this idea of displacement and subsequent formation speaks volumes of the record’s sprawling canvas. There are no less than 15 musicians contributing aural textures to Funeral‘s palette, including its spousal centerpiece Win Butler and Régine Chassagne; accordions, xylophones, harps, and lots of strings lavishly shade the edges of the band’s auspicious sound.
Funeral is a truly eccentric rock record: bizarre at turns and recognizable elsewhere, equally beautiful and harrowing, theatrical and sincere, defying categorization while attempting to create new genres. At times, the album’s total disregard of formula and expectation is positively thrilling, and other times it’s bogged down by ambition. But where execution falters, intrigue prevails, and the Arcade Fire ultimately succeeds by keeping the listener guessing as to what lies around the next corner of each proceeding track.
Butler and Chassagne tell tales in the shadow of a very specific neighborhood, one that blends nightmares, fantasies, and oblique visions into its reality. The opening track “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” escalates slowly like the Pixies covering the Velvet Underground, riding a great (and soothingly repetitive) undercurrent chord change. “If my parents are crying / Then I’ll dig a tunnel from my window to yours,” Butler sings in his warbling, expressive voice that simultaneously echoes Michael Stipe and a higher-pitched David Byrne, adding, “Purify the colors, purify my mind / And spread the ashes of the colors over this heart of mine”.
The narrative arc of Funeral could be explained as wiser childhoods relived through the eyes of adults. “Children wake up / Hold your mistake up / Before they turn the summer into dust,” Butler pleads in “Wake Up”, which sounds like a more edgy Polyphonic Spree. A choir of voices, harp, and strings all wildly fluctuate around a dirty guitar’s one insistent chord. Butler goes on to lament innocence lost: “Somethin’ filled up my heart with nothin’ / Someone told me not to cry / But now that I’m older, my heart’s colder / And I can see that it’s a lie”. In “Rebellion”, which apes Phil Spector with a steady one-key piano bang and string section march, Butler speaks to unlearning what you’re taught to believe in adolescence: “Sleeping in is giving in, so lift those heavy eyelids / People say that you’ll die faster than without water / But we know it’s just a lie / Scare your songs and scare your daughter”.
Chassagne contributes to Funeral‘s most divine moments. “Haiti”, an ode to her native country’s tumultuous past, boasts organic acoustics and a procession-leading bass line. Alternating between French and English, Chassagne’s frail voice attempts to find a kind of redemptive closure among the blossoming melodies: “Haiti, mon pays / Wounded mother I’ll never see / Ma famille set me free”. The lilting, wavelike melody of “Une Année sans Lumière” (in which Chassagne sings lead with Butler) helps to paint an enchanting, almost romantic disposition. The two sing of (as the title makes reference) a year without light, noting that “the streetlights all burnt out” and adding: “Hey, my eyes are shooting sparks / La nuit mes yeux t’éclairent (at night my eyes are afire)”. The couple often speak of finding light within perpetual darkness, even if that discovery is more figurative than it is palpably real.
“Neighborhood #2 (Laïka)” is perhaps the best encapsulation of all that is the Arcade Fire. The song sounds like Crispin Glover leading Interpol through uncharted territory, which includes a wheezing accordion and boisterous string section. The punky, distorted vocal delivery in the verses gives way to the chorus’ strong melody, the band exploits exotic sounds via its metallic skeleton crunch, and the lyrics feel personal, yet unwieldy. “Our mother shoulda just named you Laika,” Butler hollers in his fuzzy croon. “It’s for your own good / It’s for the neighborhood / Our older brother bit by a vampire / For a year we caught his tears in a cup / And now we’re gonna make him drink it up.” The Arcade Fire speaks to the incoherent phenomena imbedded in adolescents, validating an experience too often negated and begrudged by adulthood. It’s a difficult idea to create music around, and even more difficult to write about, so your best bet is to check out Funeral for yourself. Chances are you’ll be oddly moved, compulsively intrigued, and perhaps even peer into the darker cavities of your memory where virtuous perceptions remain untainted.