Friday, 23 May 2008

Top 100 Albums - #37: Funeral (2004)

Arcade Fire's first of two entries comes in the shape of their debut album, Funeral.
The origin of Arcade Fire can be traced back to 1995, when 15-year-old Win Butler formed a band with classmates Josh Deu and Tim Kile while at the Phillips Exeter Academy, New Hampshire. Butler went on to study creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College, New York, and later moved to McGill University, Montreal. It was here that he met Régine Chassagne, a Canadian with Haitian roots, and they were married in 2003. Around 2003 the band's line-up solidified around Butler (guitar, vocals), his brother William (synthesiser, bass) and Chassagne (piano, xylophone). They were joined by Richard Reed Barry (double bass, guitar), Tim Kingsbury (guitar, bass), Sarah Neufeld (violin) and Howard Bilerman (drums). The band released a self-titled EP in mid-2003, originally only sold at gigs but since remastered and re-released. Taking their name from a fire in the Exeter arcade, the band spent the remainder of 2003 and early 2004 recording their debut album for Merge Records.

This critically-acclaimed album kicks off with the first of four 'Neighbourhood' tracks. 'Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels)' kicks off with some tragically struck piano and mournful guitars. Butler's voice may come across as weak and unintelligible to those unfamiliar either with the band or with the genre of alternative rock, but bear with it, because in the higher registers it begins to come into its own. The guitars become more savage as the song wears on, counterpointed by the twinkling keyboards and the smash of the half-open hi-hat. It's a good start, subtly imposing it self upon your consciousness.

'Neighbourhood #2 (Laïka)' begins with one of the most memorable drum beats of recent years. The floor tom and snare pattern ricochets through the mix as the accordion intervenes. This is the first time we see both Butler and Chassagne on vocals, and the first impression is that it works, a good balance of Butler's strained yearning and Chassagne's laid-back reediness. The lyrics are not immediately clear, but eventually you come to realise their significance in what is essentially an allegory of the Russian space mission of 1957 which put Laika into space.

'Une Année Sans Lumière' literally translates as 'a year without light', and there's plenty of French to go around in this track. It's more down-tempo and guitar-oriented than the previous track, like a hybrid between indie (in its drums) and folk rock (guitar) - except in the final third where it suddenly turns a bit rockabilly. Butler's voice is weaker here, a fact that could either be taken as him being more vulnerable or being lazy. The jury is out.

The verdict on 'Neighbourhood #3 (Power Out)' is clear, though. This is an articulate and immaculately executed song, which shows off the eclecticism and versatility of the whole seven-piece. Chassagne oscillates between kooky xylophones and stern keyboards while Butler thunders on and the violins and guitar create the creaking, agèd texture which suits the song to a tee. Then the jagged guitar riff kicks in at 2:16 and the classic becomes complete. The brooding atmosphere fits the subject matter(s); the most obvious meaning that can be attached can be the growing apathy among humanity in the face of duplicitous leaders: the power's out in the heart of man/ Take it from your heart, put it in your hand is a worthy and timely message for the iPod generation.

It is such a shame, then, that the final 'Neighbourhood' track is such a big let-down. 'Neighbourhood #4 (7 Kettles)' not only has the strangest title of all four such tracks, but it comes across as almost embarrassed of itself. Unlike #3, which rose to the occasion and filled the mix, this shies away with the screeching violins and even screechier acoustic guitar. The sound of a squeaky chord change is one of the most irritating and commonplace sounds in alternative rock. This comes across as an almost unashamed parody of Radiohead, circa The Bends (1995), and like most of Radiohead the lyrics take way too long to come out of their shell, even if they do emerge as quite good in the end.

Things get back on track with 'Crown Of Love', largely because the dark, foreboding textures have returned. The violins have been put back in tune to add to the mourning - as befits the album title - and the piano is deep, grand and sonorous. Butler is back on form as well, producing a great chorus:

If you still want me, please forgive me
The crown of love has fallen from me
If you still want me, please forgive me
Because the spark is not within me

Add in a perfectly executed tempo change in the last minute of the song and you begin to fall back in love with this band. Sadly, it is a love that they spurn so readily with their next two songs. While 'Wake Up' may thematically be a cornerstone of the album, as a song in its own right it comes across as rather impotent, filled with enough oh, oh, oh-oh-oh-ohs to serve as a bed on a dozen radio shows. It is has also, like so much recent indie, been mercilessly overplayed, and there is a fine line between a song being instantly recognisable and a song being boring. Finally, the music hall piano at the end really winds you up. 'Haiti' suffers from a different set of problems. The drums, especially the snare, is straight out of the 1980s, with its dodgy echoed production and oh-too-crisp sound. The keyboards are too weird to do justice to this subject matter (the dictatorship of Jean-Claude Devalier, a.k.a. Bébé Doc). And while Chassagne's vocals come across as great when read on paper, they are drowned out in the studio. What a shame.

Do not despair, though, because we now come to the best track on the album. This was the track, during their performance on Later... with Jools Holland,¹ that kick-started their career in Britain, and it's not hard to see why. If 'Neighbourhood #3 (Power Out)' blasts through into your skull with its jagged guitars, 'Rebellion (Lies)' creeps very slowly up your spine until the sadness, fear and helplessness take control. The lingering keyboards act as a pulse over which Bilerman can open the taps a little bit. Butler's lyrics, about goverment propaganda are superb once again; the structure is so strict and formal, and yet not one of the lines comes across as compromised by rhyme or rhythm. The opening lines - Sleeping is giving in/ No matter what the time is - are among the best written this side of the millennium, and even the more trivial lines like Come and hide your lovers/ Underneath the covers scans as powerful poetry. There is no fault to this song whatsoever, it is an unassailable masterpiece.

The album winds slowly down with 'In The Backseat', again sung by Chassagne. And while it cannot hold a candle to its predecessor, it feels good. This time, the lyrics are given the space to breath, so you can (for the most part) get the message. It feels tight, poised and delicate, and even at the very top of her range there is not a hint of straining from Chassagne. Occasionally, the drums get too much and the mix gets too heavy, but otherwise it serves as a fitting finale.

Funeral's greatest irony is that it gave Arcade Fire the life and success they need when its themes and recordings are marred by death. The fear of government, the war on terror and the death of self-hope and confidence are perfectly encapsulated in these ten songs; and death within the families of so many of the band members adds further to the atmosphere of mourning. It is this unique combination of the personal and the political which makes this album such a rare joy. Most overtly political albums can seem very abstract, distant, and with little humanity in them which the listener can grab hold of. Likewise, many of the personal records in rock and elsewhere are so individual and introspective that they become absolutely impenetrable and no greater issues can be drawn from them. What Arcade Fire have done with Funeral is put the two poles together almost by accident, and created one of the finest pieces of musical social comment that we are ever likely to see.

3.90 out of 5

¹ Accessed on June 4 2008.

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