When I was a sophomore in high school, I used to think that in order to truly connect with a song, the volume on the radio had to be turned up to its maximum level (or somewhere close to it). Songs would blare through my speakers and fill the car with the very substance of their noise. Physics classes had taught me that songs and sounds travel in wavelengths and that wavelengths impose a kind of physicality on the surfaces they strike. To connect with a song meant to feel it approach your ears, to imagine its invisible rockets of sound ricochet off the walls or to let the wiry limbs of its instruments tangle and untangle around you like wind-blown balloon strings.
Along with most other things in high school, that belief turned out to be more of a passing phase than a soulful commitment. I reveled in the senselessness of my personal ethos. When schoolwork, family or relationships clouded my mind, I would chase them out with sound. The bands blasting through the radio could do all the negotiating for me. I believed that volume, above all, could douse a song with gasoline and toss a match shamelessly in its direction — that in the warm hum of that sonic blaze, music found its heaviest and most potent frequency.
Arcade Fire’s Funeral obliterated that approach for me. Listening to the album on the way home from school — in the winter, summer, sun, snow or rain — alone in my car catapulted me from that phase of my life into the next, the phase I’m currently living within, the one that I very much hope I never grow out of.
The great strength of Funeral exists now as it did 10 years ago because it finds its voice not in volume or decibel, but rather in the sensory experience of the listener. You can listen to Funeral on the lowest volume level or the highest and be fully impacted by its emotional sprawl. The album takes a part of you and uses it like tinder, flinging it repeatedly against the coarseness of its own battered body to produce a mutual flame. No matter your origin, your musical tastes, appreciations or preferences, Funeral takes and adopts your perspective. You just have to listen.
Arcade Fire recorded the album in Montreal and split the production time between two different seasons — first in August of 2003, then in the late months of winter in 2004. In doing so, the band was able to haul in the blissful surge of summer warmth and iron it over with ice and wintry winds. The ugly beauty of Funeral is marked by this duality of season; rather, through constant turn of atmosphere, the album becomes season-less. Win Butler’s bittersweet falsetto often teeters between rising and falling inflection. His moody vocal reach strains into ethereal sadness and yet, in Funeral’s few quieter stretches, it maintains a supercharged positivity. The energy evokes a sense of inward collision about the album. Bright string sections clash with the fuzzy synths, while horns and harps vie for background space. We hear a range of instruments tweaking each other’s sound: a xylophone, glockenspiel, mandolin, viola, 12-string guitar, accordion and a hurdy-gurdy. It takes four “Neighborhood” tracks — almost consecutively — for Arcade Fire to fully hammer out the message behind them: death, heartbreak, loss, regret are each uniquely devastating, tragic even, but they can be overcome. All it takes is time.
Part of what generated the band’s incredible buzz in 2004 was the way they seemed to effortlessly stitch and sew together the Canadian indie aesthetic. In the early 2000s, Canadian artists like Sarah Harmer, k-os, the Constantines, Feist and Joel Plaskett Emergency were salvaging bits and pieces of their genres from the scatter-brained flux of the ’90s. British Columbia was bringing forth fiery, autonomous artists at an impressive rate. Quebec and the rest of French Canada absorbed subtle American and European influences, which were seen earlier in the blues-rock of Jean-Pierre Ferland and in Harmonium’s careful prog-rock. Nova Scotia ushered the Thrush Hermits onto the alternative/indie scene just before the millennium, and Toronto produced post-rock knockouts Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Meanwhile, artists like Simple Plan and Billy Talent were breaching Billboard charts with their boiled down, politically feeble punk. As much as it was a time of musical disunion, Arcade Fire saw their opportunity to reinvent the national aesthetic.
In Funeral we hear the long tradition of indie rock laid out in 10 anthemic tracks — gritty, visceral, strange, sublime. We hear art rock, baroque pop, dance-rock, post-punk and experimentalism, due in part to Arcade Fire’s irrepressible emotional response to the deaths of several beloved ones, a collective pain that could not be purged through one or two or five genre aesthetics. The telekinesis of marriage (Win Butler with Régine Chassagne) and sibling relationships (Win and William Butler) both electrifies and ordains the band’s otherwise ordinary indie drama. These are genuine reactions to real tragedies, shared by family members and friends, captured in their microcosm of songful expression. If Funeral was conceived of catharsis and grief, it was made immortal by an equally abounding hope.
Josh Deu, who co-founded the band with Win while they were students at Concordia University, meanwhile expanded and stressed their visual side. He handled much of the band’s early promotional stuff and dabbled with their initial web content. One of his most impactful contributions — it continues to follow the band — was his directorial work with the music video for their first single “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels).” The video’s spooky shoebox caricatures are interspersed with old-timey sequences of the band members, as they rock and bop to the upswing of their indestructible beat. But it’s a haunting video. At the time of the its release, Arcade Fire seemed like the kind of band that would play live for free in the front yard of the neighborhood’s local haunted house. The track’s wispy piano paces the sky like a ghost in the midst of heartbreak, its lonely shriek reified in the backing vocalists’ chilling midnight howl. To some degree, the synergy between the music and the visuals inspired talk about Arcade Fire finally being the band that could project Generation Y’s millennial drama — however vain — into a watchable, listenable realm.
The simple images that Funeral transposes are both deliberate and universal. Funerals themselves are common to every culture, at least in some form. In the instance of someone’s passing, family members and friends come together to honor that person’s life. Things of temporal nature — achievements, failures, job promotions, academics, accidents, adventures, misfortunes — matter very little when remembering someone and who they were as a human being. A few lines from Arcade Fire’s first song on its first EP come to mind as apt description of this funereal celebration: “Your eyes are fluttering/Such pretty wings/A moth flying into me/The same old flame again/It never ends.” Funerals have always been, for me at least, a time for loved ones to pinpoint that “old flame” in someone gone, and to kindle it with the care of an aching heart. Arcade Fire’s Funeral reminds us that from generation to generation we pass the old flame forward, living by its radiance, sharing it with others, knowing truly that if we do these things, its light will never end.