The music industry has produced very few seminal albums in the last 20 years. I do not wish to join the ranks of those who decry the very foundations of modern music — I’m looking at you, Gene Simmons — and proclaim that because rock is dead we will never again see a Great Album. But the modern age still can produce such albums, as rare as they might be, and Arcade Fire’s “Funeral,” which just celebrated its tenth anniversary, is one of those. “Funeral” is a perfect album, one that retains its luster a decade after its creation and which has no flawed song.
In their music, Arcade Fire was a revelation. “Funeral” arrived as pop-punk was treading along on its last tired legs; rock music seemed in desperate need of revitalization, and Arcade Fire provided exactly that. “Funeral” is an album full of huge sound — of swelling choruses, of seven instruments playing as one, of an oceanic grandeur rare in any album, let alone debuts. The obvious antecedent was Neutral Milk Hotel, with “In the Aeroplane Under The Sea” and its anthemic folk-rock sound. But Arcade Fire, surely, looked even further back: Not since “Born To Run” had an album sounded this big. “Funeral” blended early Springsteen, Joshua Tree-U2, and even some Phil Spector all into one, and the result was glorious.
Perhaps more than any other record, “Funeral” is communal. The name “Neighborhood” graces four of its tracks, and the wordless chorus to “Wake Up” only meets its full realization live, as the full symphonic ensemble yells its way through, and a sense of catharsis grips the crowd. “Funeral” is specifically about the community of youth in the face of pervasive death, where kids swing from power lines in blizzards and walk out into the snowbanks to imagine a greater future than that which has come before. Of course there’s a romantic idealism to this, but it never feels insincere or hollow. Partly this stems from the latent sense that this record is the end of childhood. “Funeral” is full of sadness, of mourning for the dead so recently lost and the rapidly ending era of childhood. Fewer songs have ever carried such a feeling of despair as does “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels),” and “Haiti” plays like a heartfelt funeral dirge for singer Régine Chassagne’s cousins, killed by Papa Doc Duvalier. The brilliance of “Funeral” is in transcending the individual plane of mourning and bringing us into a communal one, where pain seems lost in the mélange of emotions of the crowd, where the joy of togetherness cancels out all despair.
But amid all of this community, individuality still shines. “Funeral” contains two occasions — one on “Neighborhoods #1 (Tunnels)” and one on “Wake Up” — when I feel like Win Butler is singing directly to me. These are the moments when Butler’s cracking, crusty voice pierces through the tumult of instrumentation, the neo–Wall of Sound, and reaches out only to me. Maybe those two lines have some sort of lyrical poignancy to me, maybe it was intentional, or maybe I’m just hearing things. But there I find the greatness of “Funeral” — that it merges the individual and the community into one great coherent whole.
Arcade Fire in 2004 was a vastly different group from what they are today. Then, they were a motley group of musicians from Montreal wreaking havoc on the indie scene. They played hurdy-gurdies, shouted choruses from megaphones, hit drumsticks on each other’s helmeted heads. Their chaotic performances always seemed on the edge of total collapse. Today they are quieter, more controlled; they make Kierkegaard-referencing dance music with James Murphy and play arena tours. They have, in essence, learned how to be rock stars. On “Neon Bible,” they ostensibly brought Springsteen to the fore, but nothing on that album sounded quite as big or as grand as “Funeral.” Springsteen is in fact more evident on “Funeral,” with its conception of music as a form of communal release. Arcade Fire have now lost much of their early influences, but in their live shows they still display the Springsteenian notion of concerts as a sort of religious revival, where, like Jonathan Edwards’ parishioners, we should experience all the pleasure and pain not as individuals but as one entity.
“The Suburbs” and “Reflektor,” Arcade Fire’s two most recent albums, bear little resemblance to the maelstrom of sadness and fury and longing that was “Funeral.” Arcade Fire won Album of the Year with “The Suburbs,” a record that addressed many of the themes of Funeral — childhood, lost relationships, the unfortunate inevitability of growing up — but whereas “Funeral” flirted with teetering out of control, “The Suburbs” was buttoned-up, perfectly-produced rock at its finest, not a single sound out of place. It was a great album, not as great as “Funeral,” but rarely have albums captured the feel of a geographic place as well as “The Suburbs” did. “Reflektor,” meanwhile, is still well produced but messier, a record of a band in transition, trying to reinvent itself for a wider audience. The album incorporates Haitian rara music with considerable success, and in that stylistic choice we again see the lingering of the past, for Régine Chassagne’s parents fled Haiti in the 1970s. “Reflektor” is a good album but again, not a great one — the relevant comparison is to the Clash’s “Sandinista!” — and contains many poignant, provoking songs and then some that just make you want to dance.
The enduring legacy of “Funeral” in the decade since its release has been one of wordlessness. That surging chorus to “Wake Up” made us realize that words are no requisite for evoking emotion in rock music. It’s one of those observations for which more examples come to light once you remark on it. Would the extended, Autotune-garbled outro to Kanye West’s “Runaway” have been possible without “Wake Up”? What about the chanted refrain in Titus Andronicus’ “No Future Part III?” Or the instrumental explosion at the end of Mumford and Sons’ “The Cave?” Yes, Pink Floyd did it first on the powerful opening to “The Wall,” but all these modern artists must surely count “Wake Up” among their influences. That is the path “Funeral” has charted for modern music, and it would do us good to continue to follow it. Rock may be dead, but the spirit of “Funeral” still burns strong; I pray it may light our way for the decades to come.
Contact Noah Daponte-Smith at email@example.com