Ten Days of Arcade Fire’s Funeral

One recent November afternoon, I woke to find that the first snow of the season had fallen.  I spent that day and the nine after it writing about my the songs from my favorite album, Arcade Fire’s Funeral (which first truly hit me during the first snowfall of a past year), in ascending order of favoritism.

Listen to Funeral on Spotify

10. Day 1, track 8: “Haïti”

One of my favorite touches on Funeral is that rush of water that you hear at the beginning of “Haïti.”  When they hear the soldiers yelling, into that river they’ll go.  Wedged between the album’s two most theatrical songs (perhaps to heighten their effect), the key to “Haïti” is that it’s the only song of the ten that stays small.  It’s quiet, and it shuffles along that way.  However, it’s not quiet because it’s afraid to get loud, but because it’s hardened, confident, and knows to keep its mouth shut: “Guns can’t kill what soldiers can’t see.”  But the plan isn’t to remain on the run; its revolutionary words, whispered to us in French, demonstrate a plan for societal reclamation that might be delusional, but when you fight back (even by running away), you fight for it all, knowing you’ll win.  It finds positivity and says fuck the rest in the wake of overwhelming tragedy, just like the rest of Funeral.

9. Day 2, track 10, “In the Backseat”

I’ve always hated driving on freeways.  I love hugging the shoulders, so too often I hear my tire run over the grooves that make your tires hum like hell.  I can’t focus on the same thing for too long, so either I begin to fall asleep or I make sure from the start that I’m not the one driving.  Winter break is coming up, and whenever my years in Morris hit that midpoint, my father drives three hours here and drives me back to Woodbury to be with my family for a month.  After that, he drives me back to school and then spends another three hours navigating back to my parents’ Woodbury home in the snow.  This year is the last year that he’ll do that coming back to a son: My brother ships off to college next August, possibly mine.

I spend that time in the back of his sedan, with all of my hard drives and amplifiers that I decide to bring home for the holidays, listening to some of my favorite albums, so I play Funeral a lot.  Its finale starts with this stanza: “I like the peace/In the backseat/I don’t have to drive/I don’t have to speak/I can watch the countryside/And I can fall asleep.”  And I can, so I do.  My father diligently braves the unforgiving snow for three hours as I lay innocently in the back, guilty of the crime of doing nothing (and also failing to fasten my safety belt).

“Alice died/In the night/I’ve been learning to drive/My whole life.”

Chassange’s grandmother Alice died before the writing of Funeral, and the Butlers and Richard Reed Perry suffered family deaths, too.  “In the Backseat” is the only song on the album to directly confront any of these personal tragedies, and the above line, which frames the goals of a family relationship as learning from them in preparation for when they leave you, is devastating in the extreme.  I wonder how the couple who let their hair grow long and forgot all they used to know in the album’s beginning would react to it, as they tucked and rolled from the car instead of learning to drive it.  Chassagne’s cries, of loss and of undesirable independence, disappear beneath the guitar and Pallet’s mournful string arrangements, and the funeral is over.

And so I think of what I’ll do later in life when listening to “In the Backseat,” taking over control of vehicles both literal and figurative and hoping like hell that I’ll be able to steer forward.

8. Day 3, track 5, “Neighborhood #4 (7 Kettles)”

Along with “Une Année Sans Lumière,” this is the most modest of Win Butler’s songs on Funeral, and that guitar part that circles over the song sounds like “Lumière”‘s in reverse.  Following the violent “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out),” “7 Kettles” sounds restrained, which makes sense with Butler’s perfectly illustrated feelings of diligent patience: “I am waiting ’til I don’t know when/But I’m sure it’s gonna happen then […] They say a watched pot will never boil/I closed my eyes, and nothing changed/Just some water/Getting hotter/In the flame.”  In the back half of this most recent August, circumstances caused me to nearly break down when I heard this.

Despite the chaos outside, the narrator in “Power Out” leaves his house without a plan and tries to find some light, but the one in “7 Kettles” just watches as his neighbors are starting up a fire, holding out hope for a world in which he’d be more comfortable raising children, the prospect of which is the only thing that keeps him going.  Two albums of talking about wanting a daughter while he’s still young later, Win Butler is starting to grow old.  The world might not be as apocalyptic as how he paints it in his neighborhood series, but he’s seeing that while time is what a seed down in the soil needs, it also kills old folks and wakes up babies.  Just like we knew it would.  With the world getting worse before it gets better, “7 Kettles” paints patience as a tragedy.

Now if only I could understand why there are seven kettles.

7. Day 4, track 3, “Une Anée Sans Lumière”

Lyrically simple and thematically light (maybe taking a rest after depicting a neighborhood buried in snow where neighbors dance in police disco lights), “Lumière” is perhaps the most elemental pleasure on Funeral.  The only Win Butler song of the eight to refuse Pallett’s always-knockout string arrangements, it still manages to demand the word “beauty” more than anything on the album.  Its rotating guitar line exists in silence until light drums enter and a relieving cymbal hit splashes into the vocal, and I’d bet an English speaker never would have thought that saying “I ride a horse that wears blinders” could sound so lovely.  Towards the end it raises its tempo to a gentle, tumbling electric guitar riff before another six string screams on top of it while the band shouts something completely indiscernible.  The girl’s father, blind to the narrator’s and her relationship, is mocked: “Your old man should know/If you see a shadow/There’s something there.”  I can’t imagine why he’d see one, though.  The opening lines (excepting that perfectly sung “hey”), translated: “The streetlights all burnt out/A year without light.”

6. Day 5, track 2, “Neighborhood #2 (Laïka)”

With family death in the air, the first two songs on Funeral, and the first two in the four-part “Neighborhood” series, deal with losing family members, but whereas “Tunnels” chronicles an escape, “Laïka” details a jettisoning of older brother Alexander, a troubled youth who causes conflict within the family (fighting his dad until the police come, which the neighbors respond to by dancing in “the police disco lights”), whose lack of care for his fate results in one of my all-time favorite rhymes, even if the rhyme isn’t perfect: “Our mother shoulda/Just named ya Laïka.”  Just as the song hits that chorus, Pallett’s violin progression sends the whole thing skyward before Arcade Fire resumes chanting about the sad story of Alexander, who makes his best attempts to forget about the family that abandoned him after they forced his vampirized self to live off his own cried blood.

One thing that “Laïka” exemplifies about Funeral is a reason, though certainly not enough reason, that I prefer it to the band’s second and third albums: The performance.  The scratched, barred harmonic guitar riff on top of that thudding drum beat that moves so lightly on its feet throughout the song, Pallett’s soaring violin moving being replaced by an accordion riff (which later materializes vocally as “the police disco lights”), and the vocals that cheerlead the poor soul that they’ve cast away all come together to sound, as opposed to perfectly pre-conceived like on Neon Bible, spontaneous and spilling over with ideas, one of their most brilliant being comparing a brother to an innocent dog the Russians launched into space that died in Earth’s atmosphere.

5. Day 6, track 6, “Crown of Love”

Each half of Funeral begins with a love song, but whereas the happy couple of “Tunnels” escapes into themselves from their parents and their world, the devastated lover of “Crown of Love” snuffs out not-within-him sparks and shrugs off not-upon-him hands lest his mother witnesses his inner turmoil in this waltz of despair.  “They say it fades if you let it,” begins the song, but the narrator obviously doesn’t want to let it, sadly pleading “If you still want me/Please forgive me” as guitar somberly accompanies the chorus.  As Pallett’s strings flow over the second verse, he demands a straight answer, but after a cymbal crashes dramatically a verse later, the song blooms while our narrator laments the straight answer he received, flowers growing on the grave of their old love, taken down from something eating him just like a cancer.

Also like “Tunnels,” this song blossoms into a sonic goal, transcending after Win screams a second time, “Your name is the only word that I can say!”  Maybe he won’t let it fade, but at least he seems excited by the prospect of being hopelessly in love.  By the end of the song, the strings are joyfully chasing each other in circles.  The pains of love keep growing, and this doomed fellow is thinking that’s just lovely.

4. Day 7, track 4, “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)”

“The streetlights all burned out/A year without light.”  A dreamer wakes up in his neighborhood to darkness and then indifference.  “Not really something to shout about,” he shrugs.  Previously pictured as fraught with domestic disputes and climatic apocalypse, the neighborhood of “Power Out” is more violent, with its gigantic beat and frantic guitar that are both outright metal, though less so when cast against jubilant xylophone.  Things are way out of control thanks to the indifference of its residents: “Kids are swinging from the power lines/Nobody’s home, so nobody minds.”

The parents in “Tunnels” cry at the loss of their neighborhood, but the parents in “Power Out” freeze up, left with no dreams or plans while our hero goes out into the night, goes out to pick a fight (“There you are!”), and goes out to find some light.  He’s left to grow up in some strange storm while the world remains indifferent to these menacing, insane kids, who aren’t all talk like those of “Rococo.”

Sure enough, on the darkest night, neighbors were all shouting that they found the light, resulting in further chaos (rather than one looming over a father’s shoulder, shadows of varying sizes frighteningly jumping all over the wall) and one of the best moments on the album: “We found the light!”  But these monsters are still dying out in the snow, and if you light a candle, it had better be for them, because they will find it.  Nothing’s hid from those kids, and you ain’t fooling no one with the lights out.

Funeral teaches us over and over again of youth’s beauty, but when it meets indifference it becomes nasty.  The guitar that lifts the song into a swirling vortex and the damned creepy violin ascension as Win demands an answer to “what’s the plan?” are too appropriate.  Win has an idea: When bemoaning the state of the world, take it from your heart and put it in your hand.

Finally, as if the lights are cut out again, Win howls “Where’d you go?”  Régine’s response is a cry of death.

3. Day 8, track 9, “Rebellion (Lies)”

There’s one Beatles moment that always makes me stop, smile, and appreciate its compositional brilliance: The third verse of “Back in the U.S.S.R.”  High A’s keep screaming out of the guitar with each hit at a constant interval.

After transitional guitar skittering from “Haïti,” a kick drum on rhythm with your heart’s lubs, and a hovering bass riff that establishes itself as the song’s backbone, a single snare hit breathes life into the song and a constant flow of glorious A’s beam out from the piano, the song climbing until it’s towering before it’s begun.  The song keeps growing from there, picking up a bit of life after seemingly every bar as the lyrics become less and less concerned with reality.  “Sleeping is giving in” and “people say that you’ll die faster than without water,” the song warns of slumber like we’re still on the run in wartime Haiti, and we treat them like adult fibs to which children eventually unlock the truth: “But we know it’s just a lie/Scare your son, scare your daughter.”

During the break, siren guitars to mimic the bass line and Pallett’s violin, better than it’s ever been, show themselves.  After the break, everyone decides to fall into dreamland, and the song becomes markedly sexier: “People say that your dreams/Are the only things that save ya/Come on baby, in our dream/We can live on misbehavior.”  The next verse finds everyone retreating underneath their covers, hiding the night away from their brothers (Alexander?) and with their lovers.

Another break between lyrics makes it seem like day and night are passing.  Win crows a call to wake up when he reiterates the song’s second stanza: “People say that you’ll die![…]But we know it’s just a lie!”  Win and company sing, “Scare your son, scare your daughter” and repeat it twice for posterity as the song mellows down a bit, but then two enthusiastic handclaps propel the song into full form for its final act, starting with an expanded reprise of the chorus.  In dreamland, the sun and moon are here and all right, and the young chorus shouting “Lies! Lies!” (the same one that claimed “we found the light”?) couldn’t sound happier to be reveling in their rejection of reality.

Pallett’s finest string arrangement finishes the band’s finest composition in an outro that sounds sorrowful but excited and headstrong but demented.  On the backs of giants like “Tunnels” and “Wake Up,” “Lies” serves as Funeral‘s mission statement: It’s not that those anthems are removed from reality, but that they consider it and reject it.  That’s daunting and probably impossible, to be sure, but if there’s one band out there whose transcendence can match the feeling you get every time you close your eyes, it’s Arcade Fire.

2. Day 9, track 7, “Wake Up”

Greeting you with a titanic guitar riff, “Wake Up” instantly establishes itself as the most powerful song on Funeral, and that’s including the indie via metal one with the word “power” in the title.  Kick drums and tambourines, cymbal crashes that rock you like waves rock Max’s boat, and a wordless chorus that penetrates universally because it sounds like everyone is singing it make up “Wake Up,” but you have to wonder why one of the most celebrated indie songs of all time so easily earns that u-word, with everyone deciding it just makes sense to sing along.

“Wake Up” is the song that best represents Funeral‘s attempts to reclaim the joys of childhood as a colder-hearted adult, missing the days when your heart could be filled up by nothing, blind to and uncaring of what is and isn’t a lie.  The reckless kids of “Power Out” are “just a million little gods causing rainstorms turning every good thing to rust,” and while they’re out dying out in the snow, they’re growing bigger, falling in and out of love, and being more scared than scary.  The bridge and a rejuvenated form of the song’s first half repeat, “With my lightning bolts a-glowing/I can see where I am going.”  The “Power Out” kids don’t need the streetlights lit (“Look at ’em go, look at ’em go!”) when they have faith in their future.

The song ends with a more juvenile and light form of the song’s initially titanic C-Am-F progression that spryly bounces around, overcoming the doubt and drama expressed earlier in the song to harmonize responsibility and youthful freedom.   After previous songs call to everyone to find some light and wait with bated breath on a world to better allow raising children, the big revelation comes when Win sings, “I guess we’ll just have to adjust!,” the last syllable of which disappears into the chorus, which everyone is singing because everyone longs to escape youth before seeking to reclaim it, hoping that they can overcome their constant dissatisfaction with the way things are.  That’s everyone’s story.

One of Funeral‘s many magics is how it convincingly outlines universally experienced dilemmas before it powers through them.  “Wake Up” exemplifies Funeral being music as therapy.

1. Day 10, track 1, “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)”

“And”

It’s surprising that we never think about what is implied by this second half of a compound sentence.  What’s before the comma?  Win Butler’s grandfather and Régine Chassagne’s grandmother had both recently died.  By beginning midsentence, Arcade Fire hint at these tragedies being inspiration for the album’s tragedies, spending the funeral reexamining what life means.

“If”

“Tunnels” is a hypothetical.  It’s an if-then statement regarding a fantastical situation playing out in a very real imagination.  “Tunnels” and the rest of Funeral isn’t about the world outside, the one so feared in Neon Bible, but personal, introspective journeys for meaning presented as universal dilemmas.  In Neon Bible, everyone is afraid, but in Funeral, everyone is reminded that they’re not so alone in their terror.

“The”

Ha!  Just kidding.

A mourner trying to figure out how to handle a tragedy his parents just can’t dreams of what he’d do in a world where a snowfall buries his home and the homes of those close to him, leaving his parents devastated and unsure of how to act.  The narrator then completes the conditional statement by introducing a romance to the apocalypse.  He’d brave the snow and tunnel to his lover.

Excited by his fantasies, he celebrates his own thought and reiterates that yeah! he’ll dig a tunnel, and from his window to hers.  She joins him in his escape, climbing out of her chimney to meet him in the middle of the town so they can be alone.  They find relief from the awful world in each other, and our narrator wishes it would go on forever.  With no one else around, the couple lets their hair grow long and forgets all they used to know, abandoning everything they’ve loved because they’ve discovered that all they need is each other.

Everything is pure and magical until they have children, but having forgotten all they used to know, they finally miss the parents they left behind, wishing that their presence or knowledge could assist them in raising their children to achieve the same euphoria that they’ve discovered.  The idealistic romance has surely gone bananas, and they finally wonder what the hell ever happened to their parents.  Then they just look into each other’s eyes and the chorus comes back, but this time more complete: “You change all the lead/Sleeping in my head/To gold/As the day grows dim/I hear you sing a golden hymn/The song I’ve been trying to sing.”  I can’t think of a more beautifully put thought in the history of recorded music.  It verges on mawkish (and Win’s cries don’t help those who are already cringing), but the confidence and comfort with which those words are confided (not to mention that piano backdropping them) mark an early peak to an album that never once shrinks or slows down.

After, the song reaches its objective, and its instrumental section lets you feel what they do.  Once producing gently falling notes like a snowfall, the piano is now banging center stage in an empty but sound-filled auditorium while the guitar calls to it, screaming from atop the balcony.

Despite all this peace, the mourner of the recently deceased wants the ashes spread all around his heart, choosing to live with hardship instead of fleeing to immediate happiness.  His acceptance a hyperbolic journey of the id versus the ego, he can now begin to truly appreciate the significance of the Funeral.

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Published in: on December 21, 2011 at 9:39 PM  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. amazing review

  2. This was truly beautiful. I love your interpretation of their music, songs I’ve listened to maybe a hundred times and will for the rest of my life. Funeral is my favorite album ever, and though I love it so, I do so hope it won’t stay my favorite. Arcade fire is not done creating music, and I hope they create domething even more brilliant and beautiful in the near future. Their music fills me with simultaneous inspiration and sadness. Thank you for sharing your honest emotions and thoughts. They added to my own and made me feel less alone in my deep affection for Arcade Fire.


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