Magical–it’s not a word often used to describe rock albums. Nor is it a word that I, personally, like to associate with rock music. Though some have called Neutral Milk Hotel magical, and others, still, have said the same in regards to Modest Mouse’s most recent album, it still sounds a bit idiosyncratic. Yet, the most apt word I can come up with to describe The Arcade Fire’s debut, Funeral, is just that: “magical.”
You can tell, just by listening to the music alone, that there’s something extraordinary about this Montreal-based group. The songwriting, the arrangements and the passion behind it all suggest a force beyond human comprehension. But as far as I can tell, the five members of the band are all mere mortals, which makes this feat seem even more impressive. Funeral is as awesome a debut as anyone could expect from a band.
The opening drone of “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” recalls The Walkmen, with its reverb-heavy piano and fuzzy guitar. But The Arcade Fire go well beyond that band’s recognizable garage rock realm into something different altogether. Part one of a four-part neighborhood sequence, “Tunnels” is a powerful opening statement that is touching and rocking, all at the same time. It’s loud and boisterous enough to get a club crowd moving, but when Win Butler sings “as the day grows dim, I hear you sing a golden hymn, the song I’ve been trying to say,” it’s enough to make you go from dancing to weeping uncontrollably.
The next three “Neighborhood” songs follow a first person narrative through different situations. Number two, “Laika” is a Talking Heads-sounding tune about the narrator’s brother, who has sunken into a deep depression, while Butler sings of a blackout in the dance-heavy rock of number three, “Power Out.” Sandwiched between the two is “Une année sans lumiére,” a subtle, Pavement-like song sung half in French, half in English. The final installment of the neighborhood series, “Kettles” recalls the aforementioned Neutral Milk Hotel in its folky surrealism. The Arcade Fire has often been compared to Jeff Mangum, and the parallels are obvious, though Funeral, sonically, doesn’t have much in common with In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Still, both Win Butler and Mangum have a penchant for combining melancholy with childlike innocence, something that few bands are able to do and fewer still are able to do successfully.
“Crown of Love” and “Wake Up” adopt a more grandiose sound, approaching the heights of The Flaming Lips or The Polyphonic Spree, though without the excessive choirs or synthetic sounds. “Haiti” sees the first vocal appearance by band member Régine Chassagne, who, here, also sings in French about her family’s retreat to Haiti when she was a child. The song, like many others here, balances the melancholy with the childlike, with a bittersweet melody to accompany, recalling Talking Heads’ “Road to Nowhere” amid more dreamy instrumentation. “Rebellion (Lies),” however, returns to a louder rock sound, albeit one with a touch of Echo and the Bunnymen influence. Instead of merely taking a straightforward sound and going with it, the band adds a healthy dose of strings, which complement the song with a more lush, emotional sound that’s subtle but effective. And The Arcade Fire does this with just about every song, leaving no space without just the right touch of piano, strings, guitar or whatever else the band has up their collective sleeve.
Funeral is a giant whirlwind of an album that will take you up and down through intense emotional highs and lows. It’s an album that not only grows on the listener, but makes a personal attachment as well. Though there is sadness here, and considering the title and personal tragedies that went into it (three of the band’s members lost family members before recording it), the album is more of a celebration than a wake. Funeral is an album full of magnificent sounds, imaginative themes and intense feelings. In short, it’s magical.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.