2004’s Funeral was written during a period of mourning for the members of Canadian husband and wife formed band Arcade Fire. In 1999, Regine Chassagne’s mother died aged 51, in 2003 her grandmother passed away, a year later Win Butler’s grandfather died and the following month fellow band member Richard Parry’s aunt passed. The title of Funeral is staggeringly direct, yet while this directness is occasionally channeled in the album’s lyricism, more often that not, the band opt for rich – and sometimes inscrutable – imagery over literalistic retellings.
Four of the first five tracks here are entitled some variation of “Neighborhood”; the neighborhood being used as an extended, albeit detached, metaphor for community – specifically the decay of community bonds. The theatrical opener “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” portrays it’s narrator digging their way out of a snow storm to make it to a lover’s house. The song’s surrealist first half sees it’s narrator enthralled in the seeming boundless possibilities of young love, but reality comes crashing in on the second half. As the snow storm rages on, the reality of time’s slow march dawns and our narrator is left sorrowfully contemplating aging and mortality (“Sometimes we remember our bedrooms and our parents bedrooms / And the bedrooms of our friends / Then we think of our parents, well, what ever happened to them?”) It’s a stark truth, but a revelatory one, sung less as a downtrodden admission of defeat, and more as a call to arms. It asks of us a similar question to Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day” poem: “What is it you plan to do / With your one wild and precious life?” Fittingly, the following nine tracks are as much a celebration of life as they are a reckoning with its end.
“Neighborhood #2 (Laika)” is a meditation on wild and dangerous living, using Laika – the Soviet dog who died in space – as a symbol of risking your life for what you love and escaping the mundane, for better or for worse. “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)” meanwhile is the counterbalance to “Neighborhood #2”; a showcase of a life adrift quietly heading towards destruction. It’s a song that regrettably has proven to be remarkably prescient; as a new generation – growing up against the backdrop of two recessions, a pandemic and the aftermath of 9/11 – have been left directionless and without power. In the first verse, our narrator departs from home looking for a way forward: “I went out into the night / I went out to start a fight”. But in the second line, this lyric is subtly but substantially altered: “I went out into the night / I went out to pick a fight with anyone”. What remained of hope has now fizzled away and in its place lies recklessness nihilism; an attempt to find an innocent stranger to take your anger out on, knowing that the forces actually to blame for your pain are beyond your control.
Tucked in the middle of the four “Neighborhood” tracks is “Une Année Sans Lumiere”; a subdued reflection on grief that contrasts those who chose to cherish the memory of a lost loved one, and those who run away from it (“Hey, my eyes are shooting stars / [English translation] At night, my eyes light you up / Don’t tell your father / He’s wearing blinders”).
There’s two more similarly subdued numbers on Funeral’s back-half, both of which prove the maxim of less is more. Sung almost entirely by Regine Chassagne, “Haiti” is a touching ode to her home country of Haiti, and to the woman who fled from there to give her a better life: “Wounded mother I’ll never see”. “Crown of Love”, meanwhile, is a forlorn, love-sick ballad that captures heart-break at its most visceral and intense. “The crown of love has fallen from me” sings Win Butler, his voice dripping with sorrow, “the spark is not within me”.
Funeral’s two most recognisable and legendary songs are tucked away in the album’s back-half. If Funeral is a ‘big’ sounding album, then “Wake Up” is its big, brash centerpiece. A tale chronicling its narrator’s reluctant transition from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, it contains many of the album’s most quotable lines (“If the children don’t grow up / Our bodies get bigger but our hearts get torn up”). In a near-feral shriek, Butler reaches a reluctant resignation, “I guess we’ll just have to adjust!”, capturing in one line the terror of adulthood. The penultimate “Rebellion (Lies)” is quintessential tin-foil hat, paranoia music; a madness-inducing realization of all the falsehoods we are fed on a daily basis put to song. In the refrain, Butler cries “every time you close your eyes” repeatedly against shouts of “Lies! Lies!” – every time his message sounds more urgent and panicked than before.
Following “Rebellion”, however, is an even more impactful statement; “In The Backseat” – the album’s longest track, and also its most lyrically sparse. Over barely there arrangements, Chassagne sings of being in the backseat on the way to her mother’s funeral: “I like the peace / In the backseat”. Across the rest of the song, the backseat unfolds to become a metaphor for the lack of responsibilities of youth, as the now motherless Chassagne is left “crashing towards the driver’s seat”. The song undergoes a mid-way shift, as driving guitars ramp up the stakes and Chassagne tries to make sense of her loss (“Alice died / In the night / I’ve been learning to drive / My whole life”). Then in a moment of unparalleled catharsis, Chassagne lets out an unintelligible wail. For all of Funeral’s beautiful poetry, this might just be it’s emotional climax; an expression of grief so raw and so animalistic it could never be put into words.
Best Tracks: “Neighborhood #3′, ‘Neighborhood #4’, ‘Une Annee Sans Lumiere’, ‘Crown of Love’, ‘Rebellion (Lies)’, ‘Wake Up’, ‘In The Backseat’