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Revisiting Arcade Fire’s transformative debut

by Calvin Cashen January 19, 2016
Revisiting Arcade Fire’s transformative debut

Before winning Grammys and topping the charts, there was Funeral

Montreal’s music scene is somewhat of an anomaly. The city’s perennial prosperity in the arts is indebted to the power of the public. Montreal music, for instance, is highly conducive to success. That wasn’t always an uncontroversial opinion to endorse, however; before Montreal music gathered endless adulation, devoted fans and an endless stream of critics coining it as the next big thing, the chances of a band securing anything outside a niche seemed few and far between. Enter Arcade Fire.

Ah yes, Arcade Fire. Exaggerated as it may seem, Arcade Fire changed the face of musical autonomy forever. The collective  embodies the spirit of true Montreal artistry; experimental, divisive, and absolutely wonderful.

Recorded at Montreal’s Hotel2Tango, Funeral was released on Sept. 14, 2004 to rapturous, unanimous acclaim.

Recorded at Montreal’s Hotel2Tango, Funeral was released on Sept. 14, 2004 to rapturous, unanimous acclaim.

In 2004, the group’s magnum opus Funeral was immediately regarded as a modern classic by numerous outlets, from Pitchfork Media to The Village Voice. Arcade Fire mania was at its peak. Funeral was a big deal. A very very big deal. If putting it out of perspective weakens its value, then it should be a record enjoyed in moderation, every listen eliciting feelings of nostalgia with a hopeful eye on the unknown future.

It’s an invigorating example of creative and structural friction, forged by the cavernous and evocative ambience of post-punk. The 15 musicians on Funeral are given equal time to carve a sonic space. Alluring strings and piano exhibit the record’s true elegance, creating a subtle dichotomy of delicacy and urgency.

The record is also bereft of space; there’s not a single musical note that isn’t accented by a feverish yelp or an emphatic climax. Win Butler’s emotional anecdotes are on equal ground with the instrumentation. With the virtuosity of multiple string players, Butler chisels Funeral into a cathartic experience. He addresses the anxieties of growing up, the familiar bonds of friendship, lyrical themes that resonate on an unrivaled degree.  

Extended diatribes on Funeral are far too common. Some perceive its grand scale and embracement of beauty as a frivolous grab bag of hackneyed ideas. Critique the record if you must, whether it’s addressing oddball characteristics or its unashamed penchant for eccentrics. The Sex Pistols were never considered paradigm punk relics in their heyday, but they were given time to establish themselves.

Arcade Fire’s thrilling debut Funeral is available on Merge Records. Though the band members are currently at work on solo projects, we can expect more from the band following their multi-Grammy award winning album Reflektor.

Arcade Fire’s thrilling debut Funeral is available on Merge Records. Though the band members are currently at work on solo projects, we can expect more from the band following their multi-Grammy award winning album Reflektor.

Twelve years of ubiquity has done Funeral well. The main takeaway from Funeral shouldn’t be its contentions, it should be its perpetual ambition. Arcade Fire wasn’t aiming for success, they were looking to make an impassioned declaration. Before this debut fostered sprawling artistic possibilities, Montreal had a bit of an identity problem, at least musically. Whenever the concepts of music, influence and their collaborative duties are discussed in the same conversation, audiences are immediately divided. Naysayers usually denounce Arcade Fire as the most horribly overrated band ever. Bloated and frivolous are among some of the callous descriptions often heard. Truthfully, a justifiable criticism of Funeral is virtually non-existent. C’mon, it’s Funeral.

Funeral turned indie rock on its head and proceeded to ascend ever so gracefully into our hearts. Most importantly, Funeral captured that pulverizing indie rock sound that mingles with the likes of post-punk and baroque pop. It gave Montreal a definitive musical identity. A record that contributes to the zeitgeist is one thing but a record that can’t be replicated is the greatest feat there is.

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