The story the Arcade Fire tell on Funeral starts in the middle, in mid-sentence, a sign that the story is bigger than the music, began before it, and will continue after it. Maybe it is the middle of the night. Certainly the music seems to have just woken up. It floats in from far away: some strings, then fingers wandering across piano keys, looking for the way, before an electric guitar—distant and buzzing through a wide, empty space—clears the way for Win Butler. He is alone in a world of darkness and winter, talking about what he’s seen and how it feels: ” . . . and if the snow buries my, my neighborhood/And if my parents are crying, then I’ll dig a tunnel from my window to yours.”
“Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” may be a dream, or it may be the reality of winter in Montreal, where it can snow six months a year, and where underground tunnels connect downtown. As the music heats up, what comes next is part fairy tale, part parable: a girl climbs out her chimney, meets Butler in the center of the city. They let their hair grow long, they live in the snow, their skin gets thick. She is the golden hymn in his head, the song he’s been reaching for. They have babies but have forgotten how to name them. Instead, they have only memories, the memories of the bedrooms of those who are gone: parents, friends, the image of those bedrooms in their minds, clear as can be.
Funeral is a remarkable record, hard to hear at first, then hard to stop hearing. It is an indie-rock cause célèbre, fiercely praised, defended, and protected, most visibly by the impassioned bloggers who are transfixed by both the disarming sincerity of the record’s artistic ambitions and the septet’s wild live shows—neither unusual in indie land—and Funeral‘s backstory, which is.
In the time leading up to its release, the band members lost two grandparents and an aunt. They found themselves constantly at memorial services, and then they found that their songs were a way to transmute their grief. Funeral returns continually to death—even the album closer, about looking out at the countryside from the backseat of a car—but also to religion, love, babies, kids playing in the snow, and community.
The music—mostly recorded at Hotel2Tango, a proudly analog studio in Montreal’s former Jewish ghetto that gave Funeral‘s songs living, breathing presence—is as emotionally unfettered as it is carefully constructed. It reaches back to ’80s bands like the Cure, Echo & the Bunnymen, the Violent Femmes, and Jane’s Addiction, who strummed their way through catharsis after catharsis, a sound that has become in recent years a new classicism. The Arcade Fire stretch that sound until it is both older and newer, shading it with the gloom of folk songs and the yowling urgency of indie rock. Arcade Fire songs are often called “operatic,” possibly because they are full of old-world touches like violin, viola, accordion, and xylophone, and possibly because they can be oddly decentered, swelling and shifting with an oceanic pulse, spreading out as far as the eye can see, then leaping into furious rock codas at will. The vocal melodies tend toward chants, yelps, and incantations.
As much as the talk about death and bad weather and the darkness being chased away by light that pours out of our eyes, our hearts, our hands, what gives the Arcade Fire their singular charge is that they practice what they preach: family and community. Butler, a former religious-studies major, married singer and multi-instrumentalist Régine Chassagne last August, a month before Funeral was released. Butler’s younger brother, Will, plays bass. In a way that every band can, the Arcade Fire provide a community for their fans, who can find in both the album packaging—quaint illustrations that evoke the 19th century—and in lyrics like “there’s some spirit I used to know, that’s been drowned out by the radio” typical indie invocations of the homespun and the handmade as ways of fighting off alienation. But the Arcade Fire also offer something deeper: an example of how to navigate the complexities, good and bad, that life inevitably throws at you as you get older. Death. Marriage. Children. A way of making a future. Not an easy one. “If the children don’t grow up,” cries Butler on Funeral‘s anthemic “Wake Up,” “our bodies get bigger but our hearts get torn up.” He sounds so wide open to his pain he could be John Lennon circa Plastic Ono Band, finally acknowledging that his fans were in effect his own kids.
The Arcade Fire play Webster Hall February 1 and Irving Plaza February 2.