Arcade Fire (2004)

Funeral was a huge sleeper hit which coincided with the rise of hipsters as a cultural force. It spawned a cult of rabid fans which eventually made Arcade Fire a legitimate mainstream concern, culminating in the undeniable big-time breakthrough of their Best Album Grammy for The Suburbs (and the hilarious aftermath, as the majority of working class America was forced to reckon with a band they’d likely never heard of).

But let’s forget that for a minute. Funeral is also a sparkling, perfectly bittersweet and balanced record. It is a lot of catchy, rousing fun. It’s more than the sum of its parts, which is good because those parts would make a fine illustration that everything fresh in the 90s and 2000s was merely borrowed and blended together from seminal 60s/70s/80s music.

Their style is a huge melting pot: Disco beats; the spiritual bombastic power of U2; the middle-class social politics and idealism of Bruce Springsteen; the world-beat influence of Fela Kuti and Talking Heads; the noisy ragged neo-folk of Neutral Milk Hotel; shapeshifting soul funk a la David Bowie; a dash of Caribbean patois; and some subtle threads of French pop and chamber music. Even beyond all that, one could find the simple garage rock melodies of the Velvet Underground and the Stooges and a vocalist that sounds like he could go toe to toe with both Jello Biafra and Nick Drake (plus female backup that sounds like a brassier Bjork).

All that borrowing would normally be a problem, but this band did it right. To me, Arcade Fire were especially notable because they avoided the central problem that faced ambitious young bands mashing together their influences in the 2000s. Despite progressive attitudes and some valiant efforts, these groups’ focus was spread too thin and their talent ran short. Their songs would be well-meaning, but scattered and overly ironic pastiches that careened carelessly from one genre to another for no reason. They applied bizarre production, opaque song structures and niche-y signifiers in an attempt to be original, but mostly wound up being unmemorable.

The key distinction that boosted AF to international acclaim (or so I’d like to think) was that the underlying melodies, harmonies, structure and mood of each song were sturdy. This gives each track a timeless aesthetic, emotional resonance, an internal logic, and a broader appeal. While other groups checked off all their influences in a shallow, slapdash fashion, AF makes something beautiful out of them. They are an excitable group of friendly people that have a killer live show.

The meteoric rise of Arcade Fire symbolized the mainstreaming of indie music. Now, plenty of underground 90s “classics” were recognized retroactively for their significance (a few of them even were when they first came out). But after Funeral, this style and attitude became the norm (which they later embraced and shrugged off, respectively, on The Suburbs and Reflektor).

This record is earnest without being pretentious and dull, and idealistic without being cutesy and naive. It marks another declining trend: truly humanistic music, which does not necessarily preclude electronic means. Time will tell, but Arcade Fire may be the last huge band with a soul.

Key track: “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” [If it can be counted as one composition, the “Neighborhood” sequence is probably the best song of the decade]

See also: Neon Bible – Arcade Fire (2007), The Suburbs – Arcade Fire (2010), Reflektor – Arcade Fire (2013)

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