If you haven’t heard The Arcade Fire, you’ve probably seen their name peppering many top ten lists of 2004. Funeral, the debut LP from the Montreal quintet, has deservedly generated a buzz with its balance of sincere, raw emotion and classically influenced dance pop. Led by the husband-and-wife team of Win Butler and R퀌�gine Chassagne, The Arcade Fire burst onto the Montreal scene in 2003. After releasing an eponymous EP, the band signed to the Merge label and began work on their first studio album.
Funeral was born in the wake of personal tragedy: Both Butler and Chassagne lost grandparents, and organist Richard Parry lost his aunt in the months preceding its recording. The palpable sense of grief is a strong presence on the album. It is an album of contradictions that serve to highlight the precarious territory it seeks to reside in, between despair and optimism.
Butler and Chassagne aren’t interested in carefully navigating the minefield of clich퀌�s or obfuscating their influences. Instead, they seek only to support the weight of the emotion that saturates Funeral in any way possible. Butler’s voice sounds as though it is perpetually about to brake, but remains both beautiful and devastating. He manages to elevate seemingly trite lyrics ("Someone filled up my heart with nothing / someone told me not to cry / now that I’m older / my heart is colder / and I can’t see that it’s a lie") to a place of emotional poignancy. When the operatic chorus chimes in two thirds of the way through "Wake Up" it only serves to make the song more compelling, and then out of nowhere the song breaks into an Iggy Pop-inspired dance beat, providing a musical catharsis.
Musically, the album is a descendant of ’70s experimental rock in the vein of Bowie and ’80s new wave pioneers, the Talking Heads. Indeed, many of Funeral’s standout songs are, at their heart, solid pop songs, but tinged with Chassagne and Butler’s angst.
"Rebellion (Lies)," with its driving beat and playful use of background vocals and strings, is a beautiful synergy of this tension, evoking indie pop forefathers Joy Division. It is at once, musically and lyrically, both optimistic and dark.
The album’s opener and first single "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)" is a decidedly epic endeavor. Butler’s voice is accented with minimalist piano fills layered with distorted guitar. The song’s tempered urgency finds the narrator escaping out his window to meet his teenage love in the town square during a snow storm and forgetting his parents and friends in wake of his youthful naivety.
Funeral succeeds, even excels, because of balance. Somewhere between arching optimism and tangible despair, well-honed pop craftsmanship and gritty experimental rock, endearing sincerity and self-aware irony, The Arcade Fire have found a home that is both powerful and fun.