The Eyes Have It
They're our window unto the world, the window to the soul, and the window into the heart of Arcade Fire's impossibly-popular 2004 debut. Eyes are writ throughout Funeral, songsmith Win Butler seeing them as prime recurring motif; a universal symbol that can speak of the elemental human experience —life, love, death— that forms Funeral's backbone.
On the exuberant ode to youth-in-revolt, "Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)," Butler sings: "Ice has covered up my parents' eyes/don't know how to see, don't know how to cry." He flips the covered-eyes image on its successor, "Neighbourhood #4 (7 Kettles)," crying, with much fervor, "my eyes are covered by the hands of my unborn kids/but my heart keeps watchin' through the skin of my eyelids." Here, Butler finds his most poignant lyrical depiction of the ocular mediation of human life on a song whose slow-burnin', simmer-to-boil build-up makes for perhaps the most Bright Eyes-like track on the album.
For an record so bursting with Oberstian melodrama, it's been surprising that so few have pointed out the musical similarities between Bright Eyes' 2002 epic Lifted, or the Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground and Funeral. It begins with Butler's cracked wail and snarling delivering, but extends to the music, especially on songs like "Crown of Love," a waltz-time plea-for-forgiveness whose orchestral grandeur and Butler falsetto seem to be one long apology to wife/co-collaborateur Régine Chassagne. (Where, again, the eyes have it, Butler proclaiming: "I carved your name across my eyelids/you pray for rain I pray for blindness.")
Or, The Casket is in the Soil
Perhaps the Bright-Eyes-begat-Arcade-Fire connection was never made because Lifted was a study in Conor Oberst by Conor Oberst, where Funeral seeks the universal; striving not for self-celebration, but the most essentialist connection. When, on "Rebellion (Lies)," Arcade Fire rouse up a rallying cry to stop sleeping through life (which, lyrically, they literally do, even if the effect is figurative), they are reducing words to convey their raison d'être: to get living in the face of death.
As has been well documented, during the making of Funeral relatives of Butler, Chassagne, and multi-instrumentalist/classicist Richard Reed Parry all died. As their own form of grief, the then-fledgling Québécois combo made an album exploding with life; one defined not simply by "Rebellion (Lies)" or "(Power Out)," but by the anthem "Wake Up."
These three songs effectively stake the same terrain: the exuberance of youth, the rush of being alive, the exclamatory desire to gather ye rosebuds before it's your casket they're shoveling soil onto. But, whilst the album loads up on these crowd-friendly stompers —all choruses of massed vocals, massive crescendos, bashed pianos, and frenetic, we're-all-going-to-die-so-let's-live-right-now! energy— it knows pain, too.
Throw My Ashes Like Confetti
"Haiti," Chassagne's lament for her lost homeland, is knee-deep in brutal history; written in the blood of countless slain Haitians, victims of the dictatorial regime of "Papa Doc" Duvalier; the oppressive rule that drove the Chassagnes North, to Canadian exile. Here, the cycle of death/rebirth is writ dramatically; the bilingual lyrics, dancing between English and Kreyòl at a whim, using rise-up imagery both savage ("tous les morts-nés forment une armée" (all the dead babies will form an army!)) and wistful ("unmarked graves where flowers grow").
Chassagne's LP highlight is a perfect study in the frissons of opposition —musical/lyrical/thematic— at play throughout Funeral. A flood-of-tears for her "wounded mother [she'll] never sea," its funereal lament is delivered as jaunty, joyous jamboree. With more than a hint of Talking Heads in its percolating brew of pushbeat bass, tinkly glockenspiel, and thick walls of agitato guitar, "Haiti" sounds both robustly dancefloor-ready and, at the same time, like even a wisp of wind would send it floating away, scattered like seed on breeze.
The entire record has that feeling: dark yet light, depressing yet silly, hopeless yet hopeful. Using imminent death as a catalyst for treasured life, grief as a rallying cry for a good time, this is that mythical Funeral where everyone is laughing, not crying. Arcade Fire's epic first album is an elegy for those departed, and a party for those still here.
Record Label: Merge
Release Date: September 14, 2004