I fear that this — whatever it is — will turn out to be less a music review and more a review of my thoughts surrounding a specific instance of listening to this album. In other words, more like a blog entry than a piece of actual musical criticism. But here goes…
I had been listening to The Arcade Fire’s Funeral for several days, and while I found it’s sprawling cacophony intriguing, even moving at times, I couldn’t quite see what the fuss was all about (Pitchfork giving it 9.7 and such). There were plenty of fetching qualities about it — the album has a certain reckless, orchestral nature to it that is quite sweeping, and the band’s starry-eyed naïveté is certainly beguiling from time to time. All in all, it sounded, at times, quite similar to Broken Social Scene’s You Forgot It In People, albeit with a rougher, punkier, more lo-fi/DIY edge to it.
And then, while browsing one of the online forums I frequent, Funeral roaring through my headphones, I stumbled across a most personal message. One of those messages that, despite having been written by someone I’ve never met and will likely never meet this side of the mortal coil, made me feel like I was right there with them in the same room.
It began with a comment about Gorecki’s 3rd symphony, one of the most stirring pieces of music ever written, and then it suddenly became a heartwrenching account of a miscarriage. I’ve only had to deal with death once in my life, but it was certainly nothing compared to dealing with the loss of your unborn child on the other side of Atlantic, removed from family and friends. Yet there was great hope in his writing, wrestling with the terrible and trying to reconcile it with the beautiful. And there were the responses of consolation, as other unseen and unknown individuals reached out in love and support.
And there, in the background, providing a sonic backdrop for all of this, was The Arcade Fire’s Funeral, and so help me, I don’t think I’ve ever heard music so vibrant and alive. From Win Butler’s yearning squawk as he pines for human connection to the explosive sounds of “Neighborhood #3,” from the goosebump-inducing “Backseat” where Régine Chassagne’s voice soars high above churning strings to the drunken choirs and string arrangements, it was breathless and chaotic, threatening to come apart at the seams at any moment.
Having said that, it might seem odd to say that the spectre of death looms over this record, both for the band (a number of loved ones died during the recording process) and myself (see above). However, I don’t find it that strange at all. It’s only in the face of death, when life is reduced to what’s really real, that we truly become alive. These songs remind us of that, of the need to strive and heave against the darkness around us. They make us want to take up arms, to rail against a world where grandfathers, aunts, and unborn sons and daughters are taken from us, where our communities are taken from us, where our dreams are taken from us.
There are times when you hear an album that you want to rally around, the way soldiers a hundred years ago rallied around a flag. An album that, when all the stars of your life align, grabs you by the throat and shakes you until you’re wide awake. This is one of them.