Great Fucking Albums #20: Funeral

Hey y’all. Bollocks! is three years old today. If you’ve read this blog at all over the last few years, I most humbly thank you. If you’ve read this blog and introduced it to other people, I probably owe you a beer. If you’ve been turned on to some great music by reading Bollocks!, well, that’s just what we do here. So it seems appropriate to celebrate the third anniversary of my blog by doing a very special edition of Great Fucking Albums. Today, we’re talking about Funeral, the Arcade Fire’s astonishing debut record.

Last year, I pointed out that the Arcade Fire has a real shot at being remembered as the band that chronicled what it was like to be alive at the dawn of the 21st century better than most, if not all, of their contemporaries. They understand their particular moment in time in a way that a lot bands don’t – hell, a lot of bands don’t seem all that interested in understanding their particular moment in time. Sure, the Arcade Fire is a bit polarizing (if you ever feel like your faith in humanity is soaring a bit too high, go to Fark, click on the music tab, and read any given headline and any given comments section. I guarantee you will see the phrase “hipster douchebag” in conjunction with any and all stories about the Arcade Fire. Fark is a fun place to see various news items aggregated, but it’s also a place where trolls and assholes come to feed their egos. It gets ugly fast on Fark and reading their comments always makes me sad and uncomfortable), but that’s actually a point in their favor. I’m deeply suspicious of anyone – whether they’re a band, an author, or just some nobody like me – that wants everyone to like them.

In my review of The Suburbs, I admitted some concern over how internet music sites tend to behave towards the Arcade Fire because I didn’t want people to read the super gushy shit that’s written about the band and be turned off of the music.On the other hand, it’s hard not to gush about a band as musically wonderful as the Arcade Fire; this is a feature called Great Fucking Albums, after all, so some gush is gonna get on ya.

I think the problem is that the Arcade Fire seemed a bit like they were stealing fire from the gods when they released Funeral back in 2004 (the year my wife and I started dating). It was uncommonly gorgeous, instrumentally diverse, and emotionally resonant without being the least bit trite. Listen to your radio; it’s much harder than you think to make emotional music that doesn’t descend into the hollow melodrama of capital “E” Emo. Funeral felt – and it still feels – true. I still get chills listening to “Neighborhood #4 (7 Kettles)”, which I’m doing as I type this sentence. Win Butler sings about a spirit being drowned out by the radio in a way that reignites that spirit without sounding like he’s trying too hard to write a 21st century anthem (ironically, though, the album has its share of anthems). It’s a high wire act that the Arcade Fire walk throughout Funeral, and over the intervening years, it has inspired more than a few inferior bands to attempt the same trick, with predictably disastrous results.

So exactly what is so great about these ten tracks? Essentially, they make up a brief and lovely indie rock record, but the melodies are at once indelible and haunting and the album is stuffed with various instruments while still sounding playful. Check out the freaky, almost disco-ish outro to the forlorn ballad “Crown of Love” or the chimey opening of “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels).” Every one of the instruments (including decidedly non-rock instruments like the xylophone and recorder) employed to make Funeral is tucked securely into its place and used to serve the songs. The result is an album has a kitchen-sink approach that is keeps excess at bay with strong musical discipline.

But I said earlier that the Arcade Fire was adept at capturing the moment in which their music exists. How does Funeral capture 2004? It’s an album riddled with death (obviously), uncertainty and war (“Haiti”), dark winter imagery, and yet it also has a sense of youthful energy (“Wake Up” and “Rebellion”) that suggests a possible antidote to the darker themes. For an album that came out when George W. Bush was wiping his ass with the constitution and the best thing the Democrats could offer as an alternative was John “Zzzzzzz” Kerry, Funeral certainly reflected my mood at the time. And because it doesn’t contain overt references to things happening in 2004, the album doesn’t feel outdated a few years later.

For me, Funeral also perfectly captures the feeling of my first winter in Boston. I would trudge to the train station and listen to Win Butler sing about snow burying his neighborhood and realize that it was certainly trying to bury mine. But I don’t think I’d love Funeral as much as I do if it was only the soundtrack to bitter, cold winters and times of serious political upheaval. I first encountered Funeral when I started working for Tower Records in Harvard Square – it’s one of the few albums that I think all of the employees actually liked (I can’t verify this consensus, but I’m pretty sure it was there. I think we all had a similar affection for Let It Be by the Replacements) and we listened to it incessantly in January of 2005 while the eighth worst winter in Boston history raged on outside.

As I sit in sunny (yet crappy) Van Nuys, California, on a February day that is supposed to hit 76 degrees and listen to Funeral seven years after it came out, the album still resonates with me. Now, maybe because I’m firmly in my thirties, it feels like an album that balances the inevitability of death with the tirelessness of youth, and songs like “Wake Up” and “Rebellion (Lies)” seem to warn me against losing my youthful spirit as I go kicking and screaming towards middle age. When I worked at Tower, I often thought that we needed some new timeless records. The Beatles were great and all, but I refused to accept the notion that all the really great, enduring music was recorded twenty years before I was born. I still do, and I offer Funeral as evidence that timeless music is still being made today.  And I know that the internet is always telling you pretentious shit about some new band and how essential they are. I try to avoid the word “essential” myself, but if an album made in the last ten years has been essential, Funeral is it.

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2 thoughts on “Great Fucking Albums #20: Funeral

  1. Boy, it sure was hard to spot your comment on Fark, Matt. Real hard.

  2. This has nothing to do with Funeral. I’d just like to say in response to “If you’ve been turned on to some great music by reading Bollocks!, well, that’s just what we do here”: The first post that I read here was about Separation Sunday. That was the first Hold Steady album I bought. And then I bought Stay Positive. And then I bought Heaven is Whenever.

    I love that band. It was good luck for me that I ended up here.

    Cheers.

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