By now, you're probably tired of hearing about what a great year 2004 was for alternative rock (the best year since "Nevermind"; we owe it all to "The O.C ," etc.). It's all true, though in a year of left-field alt-rock success stories, some successes were more notable than others. While the popularity of comparatively conventional, verse-chorus-verse acts like Franz Ferdinand and the Scissor Sisters wasn't too hard to predict, the embrace of artier, more experimental bands like Modest Mouse, the Fiery Furnaces and the Arcade Fire may be the year's nicest surprise.
Even within the patience-trying confines of art rock, the Arcade Fire is a thorny case: A French Canadian outfit led by the husband-and-wife pairing of Win Butler and Regine Chassagne, its albums ("Funeral" is the first full-length, after a self-released EP) are densely packed, unconventionally instrumented and decidedly nonlinear, with little in the way of traditional hooks or narrative.
The Arcade Fire delivers a dense but powerful meditation on love and loss.
Occasioned by the deaths of several family members, "Funeral" is, well, funereal. Grave and fantastical, it's virtually impenetrable, and easy to admire if not always to love.
The September disc's most accessible track, "Neighborhood #2 (Laika)," is a briskly paced ode to/eulogy for the first dog in space ("It's for your own good, it's for the neighborhood"). Butler, whose wan, warbly voice falls somewhere between David Byrne and the Pixies' Frank Black, handles the bulk of the vocals. Even on the almost-cheerful songs, he sounds absolutely heartbroken. On the wondrously theatrical ballad "Crown of Love" ("In my heart there's flowers, growing on the grave of our old love") he vaguely evokes Rufus Wainwright, while the shape-shifting "Wake Up" offers both a full choir and weird, old-school R&B undertones, and the TV on the Radio-reminiscent "Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)" is the closest "Funeral" gets to dance pop.
The Arcade Fire seems capable of just about anything, in other words, though the band is better at some things than others.
Though richly instrumented -- it's loaded with string sections, xylophones, synthesizers and gourds -- "Funeral" sounds consistently tinny and remote, and always about 30 seconds away from total collapse.
Though it isn't immediately evident, underneath the rambling almost-melodies and frequently obscure lyrics lies a remarkable meditation on love and loss. And while the phrase "rewards repeat listenings" is usually rock critic code for "intensely dull album from which reasonable people will flee," this time we mean it: The more you listen to "Funeral," the more it makes sense, the more it seems like a carefully reasoned, lovingly crafted elegy instead of an occasionally baffling collection of noises made by willful Canadians.
Even in its worst moments, "Funeral" is worth hearing, and during its best moments there's something close to alchemy going on, as a skewed, stunning assortment of sounds turns into something far greater than the sum of its parts.