Thursday, August 30, 2007

[079] Funeral

Album: Funeral
Artist: Arcade Fire
Release Date: September 2004
Label: Merge
Producers: Arcade Fire

"And the power's out in the heart of man,
Take it from your heart put it in your hand."
- from "Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)"

When people try and tell the story of Funeral, Arcade Fire’s debut album, they usually focus on the fact that it was made while the core band members - Win and Will Butler, Win’s new wife Régine Chassagne, and guitarist Richard Reed Parry - were in mourning for various relatives, and the lyrics and tone of the music reflects that. But after listening to it again over the last few days, and thinking about the impact it had, I think it’s not about death. It’s about family and in a larger sense it is about how people bind together; it's about connection. The liner notes, which look like a funeral program, not only mention the connection in grieving together, but the connection of marriage, and the connection in taking shelter from nature. Every song on the album is in someway about the creation or dissolution of connections between people. But again, Arcade Fire don't wallow in their pain; there are plenty of moments of musical joy and abandon on Funeral to remind you that such a ceremony is also a celebration. For an album about death, it sure has a lot of life. Before I continue, I want you to watch this…

"Rebellion (Lies)" [live at the 2005 Coachella Festival]
from the documentary Coachella

What you just watched was the moment Arcade Fire went from a rumor to a legend; I don’t mean legend like Muhammad Ali, but more like “Oh man, I saw this amazing new band called Arcade Fire at Coachella!!” It’s legend as a cycle of word of mouth; a connection has been made. As far as I’m concerned, that performance ranks up there with Hendrix at Monterey Pop or Nirvana at Reading; the first time a large audience (in this case, 15,000) got to witness this thing that had been whispered about for so long. It took me a long time to figure out what that meant to the breakthrough of the band and the lasting appeal of this album. In the end, I found that the connection that was made, that crowd reaction, and the sequence of events prior and following that make up the band’s career arc, are a testament to the human ability to make art. One of the things that separates us from animals is, well not just the ability to create something, anything, but to create this object that we call “art” and has only one use: to provoke an emotional response. Art is like an open-ended gift, and like any gift, there is surely emotion attached to the giving as well as the receiving. There’s so much emotion that influenced how Arcade Fire made this piece of art, this gift, and that continued on once they put the album out. It becomes the word of mouth, and as the word of mouth grows, the audience develops a connection, a community; with the first half of Funeral referencing neighborhoods, you begin to wonder if Arcade Fire had this all planned.

At this point I must mention that I would not be writing this entry without the glowing Pitchfork review which started all the whispering. It is such an easy thing to say to a friend – oh yeah, I heard about it wherever – but never have I seen a piece of criticism impact art like this. After that review was published, Merge Records almost immediately sold out of their inventory, and the album went on to be the label’s best seller. The band had to re-book tour dates in larger clubs to deal with demand. The Canadian edition of Time Magazine said Arcade Fire "helped put Canadian music on the world map", as if Neil Young and Joni Mitchell never existed (never mind Alanis). All of a sudden the artists that they loved, that gave them gifts of great art, from David Bowie to David Byrne, were praising them, keeping the cycle of word of mouth going.

The wonder of art is in some ways a connection to nature. It represents the ability to craft something out of nothing. The organic and traditional (read: old) instrumentation on the album plays directly into that feeling. Moving past basic guitar-bass-drums, the mix of accordion, strings, french horn, recorders, glockenspiels, harps, upright bass and xylophones make the music feel more timeless, closer to the Earth. This is augmented by nods to music of days past, from Modern Rock back through Post-Punk ("Neighborhood #2"), Disco (the finale of "Crown of Love"), Motown (the finale of "Wake Up"), Girl Group ballads ("Crown of Love"), French torch songs (Chassagne's "Haïti", a tribute to her childhood home), American Folk music ("Neighborhood #4"), all the way back to church hymns ("Une année sans lumière", "Wake Up"). The choir of "Wake Up" lays it out for the audience: Arcade Fire are a family, a community, a neighborhood in and of themselves. The audience needs to see that they are those things as well. The hands create the art. The art is given and received with new hands, hands that clap to its rhythm as the mouth whispers a rumor. A connection has been made. The rumor becomes legend. The cycle continues.

01. "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)"
02. "Neighborhood #2 (Laïka)"
03. "Une année sans lumière"
04. "Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)"
05. "Neighborhood #4 (7 Kettles)"
06. "Crown Of Love"
07. "Wake Up"
08. "Haïti"
09. "Rebellion (Lies)"
10. "In The Backseat"

"Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)" [video]

- BONUS: "Neighborhood #2 (Laïka)" [video]
- BONUS: "Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)" [video]
- BONUS: "Wake Up" [video]
- BONUS: "Haïti" [live in France, 2005]
- BONUS: "Wake Up" [with David Bowie; live at Fashion Rocks]
- BONUS: "Rebellion (Lies)" [live on Letterman]
- BONUS: "Rebellion (Lies)" [video]

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