Arcade Fire, 'Funeral'

The Clash Essential 50 counts down the greatest albums of the last five years, i.e. the lifetime of Clash.

Over the past four weeks, has featured articles focusing on every one of our selected albums, revisiting these classics for timely reappraisals.

And now: our number one. Drum roll?

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Arcade Fire, ‘Funeral'
(2004; Merge/Rough Trade)

It’s rare indeed to remember the first time you ever heard a record, or a band, yet I recall clearly where and when I first heard ‘Funeral’ and its makers, Canadian collective Arcade Fire.

Well, ‘when’ is a little sketchy – half time during some football match or other, back when Southampton were in the top flight – but the ‘where’ was at a promoter friend’s house in north London. As the game we were watching reached its midway mark, he slipped a CD he’d recently received into the stereo and asked for my opinion; presumably he’d been sent the album by somebody looking for shows. I didn’t know what to say about the album, or at least the fifteen minutes I took in while he made tea, busying himself in the kitchen, leaving me alone with music unlike anything I’d ever previously come across. I think I may have offered: “It sounds a little French”.

What I said – most likely little more than a grunt of appreciation, my outward attentions turning back to the kicking at hand – and what I quite immediately felt were different things entirely. After all, it’s not typical to gush forth adoration when it’s based solely on a snippet, a sneak peek at something far grander. Yet the impact was immediate: ‘Funeral’, even only quarter of an hour of it, sounded like a classic from its very first airing. As soon as the piano notes fall like a gentle rain on a glistening pond – your toes dipped in it, of course – a connection is made; when Win Butler begins his vocals, they come on slow, but after only thirty or forty seconds already something’s stirring in the album’s opener, ‘Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels)’, which telegraphs the build to a sensation within you that just can’t be beaten. That tingle, a shot of electricity; a charge brought on by the investing in an art most ambrosial.

The song immediately paints its makers as outsiders, with lyricism of being cut off from the world, but getting by through love for a chosen few over association with a great many – “Since there’s no-one else around, we let our hair grow long and forget all we used to know”. The album’s title, arrived at after band members suffered family losses during the record’s gestation period, is absolutely suggestive of an overall tone – melancholic, but celebratory too, as all passings lead to a coming together of parted souls for a session of remembrance. Even in the darkness, there is hope, as ‘Neighbourhood #3 (Power Out)’ sings crisply: “I went out into the night, I went out to find some light”. The song’s one of the album’s best-known tracks due to its ubiquitous presence on indie-disco dancefloors (alongside the equally exhilarating ‘Rebellion (Lies)’ and ‘Wake Up’), its underlying moroseness – “kids are dyin’ out in the snow!” – masked to an extent by some pounding, New Order-like bass and percussion. It matters not if you chose to ignore its lyrical tale – dance and you interact, physical expression over cerebral interface. And interaction is what’s key.

Win Butler’s delivery was heard by some to be imperfect, and the man’s not the most naturally gifted singer, that’s for sure. But what he lacks in note-hitting accuracy, he makes up for with a sublime sincerity of tone that assures the listener that he has invested every cell of his heart in this recording. Reviewers at the time took to calling ‘Funeral’ life-affirming, emotionally rich, and an album of true empowerment; (almost) all were bowled over by its tapestry of neatly weaved musicianship – strings are utilised well, never turning songs into anything too slushy, and the core collective employ organs, guitars and accordion well across the album – and addictive play-again qualities. Once through ‘Funeral’ is an absorbing listen, but play it twice, or even three times on the bounce, and every session will reveal something you missed previously – it’s that detailed a record, rich in depth and stirring of soulful intent.

“Sounds a little French” – quite the underselling of an album so very sumptuous, so delectable of engrossing narrative and enveloping sounds, that five years on it can be regarded as not simply one of the very best albums of Clash’s lifetime, but the best. (Although it should be noted that some lyrics are, indeed, in French.) At the end of every office argument over this list, ‘Funeral’ always emerged at the top of the pile; nobody could agree on a record to trump it. It crosses demographics, appealing to a broad array of audiences; it is indie and yet not, pop and eccentric and experimental and beautiful. It is everything a number one album should be – not in the charts, but in our hearts. And it sets its stall up there from its very first few second.

Frankly, if you don’t own this album (and love, and cherish it), you quite probably don’t deserve to have any music in your life whatsoever.

Arcade Fire – ‘Rebellion (Lies)’

Arcade Fire – ‘Neighbourhood #3 (Power Out)’

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Bonus interview: Win Butler speaks to Clash about ‘Funeral’…

Why was the album titled ‘Funeral’?
As we were finishing the record my grandpa Alvino [Rey, a famous US swing-era musician] passed away. He led a big band and he was just the coolest old guy. He was 95 years old and he still recorded himself in his basement. He had a PalmPilot and e-mail, and Régine had gotten to play with him before… he was just this really beautiful guy. So we drove out through the desert to San Francisco to go do a memorial service for him where he grew up. There were all these people there, family members and friends and stuff. It was a meeting place for people… I kind of describe it as the meeting place for the songs.

Where did you record the album, and over what period?
We made an EP in 2002, right as the previous line-up of the band was falling apart… There was a period when we didn’t have a drummer, and we were just rehearsing a lot in mine and Régine’s house in Montreal. I think it was in that period of drummerless wilderness when we ended up writing a lot of the songs, ‘Wake Up’ and ‘Power Out’ being two of the first. So we went into the Hotel2Tango recording studio in Montreal [in 2003] to do a 7” split A-side with ‘Wake Up’ and ‘Power Out’, and our friend Arlen [Thompson], who plays in Wolf Parade, played drums on ‘Wake Up’ and then Régine played drums on ‘Power Out’. The guy who recorded us was Howard Bilerman, who was this amazing engineer who ran the Hotel. He liked the music and he had played drums when he was younger and he was like, ‘I’ll be your drummer’. We were able to raise small amounts playing shows to pay for the studio time, and Howard graciously deferred what we would normally have to be paying the engineer until we had a bit more money. He kind of made it financially possible for us to do it.

How did you fit into the Montreal scene at the time?
We were the only band playing pop music as far as I could tell, or at least the only band that thought of ourselves as wanting to write songs… It didn’t feel like we were musically related to what was going on in Montreal, but I do think that it was a blessing to be there because there was a real spirit of independence in the city… I would say that, if anything, the city inspired us to go our own way with the album and not really worry about the outside world too much.

The album creates some striking images: snow-covered neighbourhoods, a world underneath the bed covers. How did those appear?
I think a lot of the time it just starts with a feeling, and the world that you create in the lyrics is a way of trying to make that feeling real. It’s about trying to communicate that kind of spark that you initially have, that makes you want to make music in the first place. For me everything - whether it’s an arrangement or the lyrics or the idea of the song - is trying to hold up that central spark.

Can you remember where that spark originated?
I went to a boarding school and I had this English professor who was an old beatnik guy who hung out with Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Borges, and he was like the most amazing dude. I remember him showing us Brazil and Blade Runner in class, this kind of science fiction stuff, and aged 15 I couldn’t really take it all in. That was around the time that I first got into Radiohead and then kind of discovered bands like The Smiths and The Cure. That’s when I first started playing cover songs with my friends and writing on my four-track and really, musically, when I first started to do what I do now.

Which track on the album still has the most meaning for you?
It’s tough if you don’t speak French but, to me, the lyrics of ‘Haïti’ are one of the best things Régine and I ever did. That kind of chokes me up when I hear it.

What are your five favourite albums from the last five years?
Wolf Parade’s ‘Apologies To The Queen Mary’; LCD Soundsystem’s ‘Sound Of Silver’; Jay Reatard’s ‘Blood Visions’; Cass McCombs’ ‘A’; and Portishead’s ‘Third’.

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The Clash Essential 50, IN FULL…

50: The Killers, ‘Hot Fuss’
49: Kasabian, ‘Kasabian’
48: Deerhunter, ‘Microcastle’
47: Bat For Lashes, ‘Fur and Gold’
46: Vampire Weekend, ‘Vampire Weekend’
45: MGMT, ‘Oracular Spectacular’
44: Portishead, ‘Third’
43: Elbow, ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’
42: Amy Winehouse, ‘Back To Black’
41: Santigold, ‘Santigold’
40: Late Of The Pier, ‘Fantasy Black Channel’
39: Sigur Rós, ‘Takk…’
38: Efterklang, ‘Parades’
37: Liars, ‘Drum’s Not Dead’
36: The White Stripes, ‘Get Behind Me Satan’
35: Hot Chip, ‘The Warning’
34: Fleet Foxes, ‘Fleet Foxes’
33: Benga, ‘Diary Of An Afro Warrior’
32: Feist, ‘The Reminder’
31: Broadcast, ‘Tender Buttons’
30: Battles, ‘Mirrored’
29: Klaxons, ‘Myths Of The Near Future’
28: Tunng, ‘Mother’s Daughter And Other Songs’
27: The Libertines, ‘The Libertines’
26: Kanye West, ‘The College Dropout’
25: Apparat, ‘Walls’
24: Burial, ‘Burial’
23: Gallows, ‘Orchestra Of Wolves’
22: Caribou, ‘The Milk Of Human Kindness’
21: Broken Social Scene, ‘Broken Social Scene’
20: Sufjan Stevens, ‘Illinois’
19: Soulwax, ‘Nite Versions’
18: The Bug, ‘London Zoo’
17: Brian Wilson, ‘SMiLE’
16: Isolée, ‘We Are Monster’
15: My Morning Jacket, ‘Z’
14: Franz Ferdinand, ‘Franz Ferdinand’
13: Joanna Newsom, ‘Ys’
12: Modeselektor, ‘Hello Mom!’
11: Bloc Party, ‘Silent Alarm’
10: Animal Collective, 'Merriweather Post Pavilion'
9: J Dilla, ‘Donuts’
8: Arctic Monkeys, ‘Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not’
7: M.I.A., ‘Arular’
6: LCD Soundsystem, ‘LCD Soundsystem’
5: The Knife, ‘Silent Shout’
4: TV On The Radio, ‘Return To Cookie Mountain’
3: Kings Of Leon, ‘Because Of The Times’
2: Radiohead, ‘In Rainbows’
1: Arcade Fire, ‘Funeral’


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