|BELIEVE THE HYPE? THE ARCADE FIRE'S FUNERAL.|
Most of us respond to a family member's death in one of two ways. Either we become introspective and sensitive, awed and solemn -- or we combat our grief by celebrating life, acknowledging the importance of love, and laughing at the sick joke that death is.
Neither response is better than the other, and often we find ourselves dovetailing between the two when sad news comes to our door. And
as we sort out our conflicted feelings, we may even lean on certain records to get us through.
Like regular people, rock bands' "death albums" fluctuate between the earnest and the reactionary. While R.E.M.'s Automatic for the People mostly turned the volume down for its funereal lullabies, the Eels' Electro-Shock Blues went crazy with its eccentric arrangements and freak-out rockers, chronicling the mindset of
an unhinged man paralyzed by sadness and anger at losing a sister and mother in rapid succession. Time Out of Mind, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots and most any 9/11 record confront mortality as uniquely as individuals do. Consequently, reviews for death albums are often much more personal and heartfelt than your typical "dude, it rocks" write-up. Because of the severity of the subject matter, these albums carry an artistic cache that your run-of-the-mill rock release never does.
Though it's hardly the way most new bands would want to enter the marketplace, the Arcade Fire's debut, Funeral, is unquestionably a death album. With several band members losing family during the recording, Funeral addresses death, but in a stylized, theatrical way -- people get bitten by vampires, cities are attacked by a freak ice storm, cellos moan on the soundtrack. While it's irritating how buzz bands always need a cool personal "story" in order to get properly marketed -- Jack and Meg say they're siblings, but they're actually a divorced couple!!! -- this Canadian group have turned their sadness into a compelling album, even if I can't always appreciate their approach to grieving.
For the most part, group leader Win Butler confronts mortality from the Flaming Lips school of emotional impressionism. Though not as outright goofy as Wayne Coyne, Butler sidesteps intimate reflections by channeling his pain through apocalyptic metaphors and sentimental devotions of love to his wife, fellow band member Régine Chassagne. This can, occasionally, collapse into pretension -- watch out for concept-album song titles, over-orchestrated lesser tracks and some inscrutable lyrics. But quite often, his self-indulgent approach reflects any sane person's struggle to make sense of loss. On tracks like "Neighborhood #4 (7 Kettles)," Butler's voice has an almost operatic quality as he laments, "Time keeps creepin' through the neighborhood/Killing old folks/Wakin' up babies/Just like we knew it would." Backed by strings, he occupies that little section of indie rock populated more by drama majors than antisocial college dropouts, by guys who paint on the side rather than play video games.
Deservedly, the Arcade Fire's debut has attracted a lot of attention because its ambitions go beyond garage-rock crudity or power-pop polish. Funeral is emotion-dripped, widescreen and cinematic in terms of its musical palette. (Rufus Wainwright's ornate tunes are the closest parallel in contemporary pop.) It's hard to know for sure if such sonic aspirations were the result of multiple burial services. My hunch, however, is that Butler and his posse are the sort of self-absorbed bohemians who didn't necessarily need real-life tragedy to get all artsy on us. Not that self-absorption disqualifies albums from greatness -- especially when it comes to death albums. Whether it's E of the Eels or Loudon Wainwright III on Last Man on Earth, poking around your soul while grieving can produce terrifically empathetic music. The trick is maintaining the connection between singer and listener, relating the songs' private pain to an audience's. Usually, we can do this easily because we've come to know the artist from earlier albums -- we can compare lyrics and attitudes now that gloom has entered the room. But with the Arcade Fire, these allegorical songs are from an unknown commodity. It's part of the appeal, actually: These mysterious guys and gals have come from the north to deliver arch tales of loss -- sometimes sung in French!
On the album's best moments, the Arcade Fire get to be as melodramatic as they wanna be while sucking us in emotionally. The doomsday scenario of the opening cut, "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)" -- a blizzard buries a town -- results in a romantic image of trapped lovers digging a tunnel between their bedrooms to be together. Though elaborate, the music's flurry of strings and pianos and drums powerfully surge to a crescendo of reunion, deftly turning its snow-as-death analogy into a rousing cry for love and renewed hope. For all its twisted-fairy-tale aspirations, though, Funeral speaks loudest when it's simple and primal. The gothic "Crown of Love" broods over the permanence of romance while "In the Backseat" (sung by Chassagne) yearns for the childhood innocence of riding in the backseat while your protective parents drive. ("My family tree's losing all its leaves," she sings, "crashing toward the driver's seat.") In stark imagery, these musings touch on the fragility of life without getting too precious about it.
Unfortunately, while the music always challenges you with its grandiose ambitions, Funeral too often aims thematically for a whimsical buoyancy that can give you a bad case of the Polyphonic Sprees. Perhaps this tendency can be blamed on the Flaming Lips, who with Yoshimi addressed serious issues of mortality in a playful (but by no means insincere) way. By extension, the Polyphonic Spree are the Lips without brains, turning all of life's uncertainties into Day-Glo, hippy-dippy, mindless sing-along fantasias. The Arcade Fire are certainly not as offensive as the Spree, but they do exhibit a little of that band's willingness to exude a sort of faux-sunny sheen to their get-happy songs like "Wake Up."
This might explain why, as much as I enjoy Funeral's individual tracks, I get kind of restless listening to it from beginning to end. Eventually, its high-drama sparkle becomes tiresome -- it makes me want to take a nap or put on some grittily earnest folk music to shake off some of the artifice. Part of this reaction, as I suggested earlier, is perhaps based on my own attitude toward grieving. Let me mourn, but let me rage against that grief too -- let me react as wildly in both directions as I please. But underneath it all, I know my responses are linked to a single fact: This person is gone and he is never coming back. Whether maudlin or celebratory, the best death albums never lose track of that fact. Win Butler and his band members weathered a tough year and produced a stirring album from the carnage. Perhaps it's not my place to tell them how they should cope with death, but Funeral's repeated stab for the theatric sometimes just feels mannered and detached. Everybody hurts sometimes, guys -- we'll get through this together.
Believe the Hype rating: 6 out of 10.
Tim Grierson is the editor of The Simon.