15 years ago, Arcade Fire made their opening statement with their debut album Funeral. Beginning with sprawling keys and melancholic orchestrals, they swooped in with the thundering crash of the album opener ‘Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels)’. It was the beginning of a four-part epic that was housed in a ten-song project that established the band as critical darlings and renowned tear-jerkers.
2004 was a big year for alternative albums. New projects by Animal Collective, Bjork, AIR and Modest Mouse arrived but there was something so large about Funeral that it sat atop its own throne. It housed the sheer size of an arena-ready U2 song with the emotional vulnerability of Sufjan Stevens. At the time of release, they were heralded as alt-rock saviours and in the time since, they’ve grown into festival-headlining behemoths with Grammys to their name, and have made fans of everyone from David Bowie to David Byrne.
Listening back to the album in 2019 is a different experience. The emotion remains but the sound is less revolutionary because they birthed a sound that alt-rock artists are still chasing today. You only have to look at Australia’s current crop to see how far the influence has extended. Gang Of Youths thunder with a vulnerability that’s powered by anthemic guitars and percussion, while Methyl Ethel house a feel for rock-infused rhythm and emotion. Arcade Fire have also heavily inspired relative newcomers Middle Kids and Alex Lahey – both rock/pop artists who wear their heart on their sleeve.
“When I heard Funeral for the first time I remember being so arrested by the rawness of it, and the beauty,” says Middle Kids’ frontwoman Hannah Joy speaking to Music Feeds. It would be more than a decade until she would form Middle Kids, but that juxtaposition of beauty and rawness exists on their debut album Lost Friends, particularly as Joy’s voice floats above a muddy bed of guitars on ‘Mistake’.
Joy reveals that there’s actually a connection between that very song and Arcade Fire’s ‘Neighbourhood #2’ if you’re an attuned listener. “You can hear that it is a variation of the drum beat…We also used cello in that song kinda like they use violins.”
Like ‘Mistake’, the emotion on Funeral was organic. In the midst of recording the album, three of the band’s family members passed. The songs were already written but the emotion spills out into the recordings. “Win Butler’s lyrics and voice are so earnest and everything sounds so organic,” Joy says.
Listening to the stirring wails of ‘Wake Up’ is both a cathartic and saddening experience. You can feel either liberation or darkness depending on what mood you’re listening to them in – something that Joy connected to.
“The songs always feel like they are written about an experience I had, they have this nostalgia,” she says, adding, “I can so clearly imagine the stories they tell.” It’s a reaction that she strives for with Middle Kids, evident when she opens a heart-tapping song like ‘Never Start’ with the lyrics, “Lonely is the sound when the truth hits the ground / I lost all my friends that day.”
For Alex Lahey, she discovered Funeral after hearing their third album The Suburbs – a record that nabbed the Grammy for Album Of The Year in 2011. It taught her that, “there’s no shame in being bold.” When Butler sings in ‘Crown Of Love’, “If you still want me, please forgive me,” it’s as if he’s emptying every bit of emotion left inside of him. Lahey adopts a similar forthrightness with her song titles from ‘I Haven’t Been Taking Care Of Myself’ to ‘I Need To Move On’.
She’s also been inspired by the size of Arcade Fire’s work. Funeral is a beast of a record, combining gritty rock arrangements with cinematic strings. “Trying to build an orchestra in a rock band is definitely something that I think about a lot in the studio,” says Lahey.
They say too many chefs spoil the broth, but it’s something that Arcade Fire have played to their advantage. Six musicians are credited as having main spots on the album while there are another nine people credited as providing additional instrumentation. Their stages are always busy with the spotlight shared among them. “The power of collaboration and letting people own their part of the stage is something to be celebrated and encouraged,” Lahey affirms.
From the crushing intensity of ‘Neighbourhood #4 (Power Out)’ to the elongated climax of ‘In The Backseat’, Funeral is a record that’s hard to pick highlights from but both Lahey and Joy agree there’s one standout – the opener ‘Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels)’. Lahey feels that it’s an integral scene-setter for the rest of the record. She calls each of their albums “deeply conceptual” which places an increased expectation on the opening statement.
Joy can’t go past the imagery that Butler builds. “Him singing about his neighbourhood being buried in snow and digging a tunnel to your window always gets me,” she says.
Butler and wife Regine Chassagne wrote the majority of Funeral together. A lot of the stories were fictional but it was a feeling they were trying to create rather than depicting their whole life blow-by-blow, particularly when it comes to ‘Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels)’.
“That’s taking an emotional state and trying to express it in some way that’s not strictly autobiography,” Butler told Pitchfork after releasing the record.
Escapism and a conflicted nostalgia for their youth are themes that have been explored and expanded on throughout their career. The Suburbs centres around growing up in its namesake while Reflektor searches for something more, looking at the state of the world. Everything Now tackled it with an element of sarcasm, drawing criticism from those invested in their raw emotion.
Whichever project you look at though, its most stirring moment draws from the foundation they laid down on Funeral. From the climatic desperation of ‘Put Your Money On Me’ (Everything Now) or the pulsating memory recollections of ‘We Used To Wait’ (The Suburbs), Arcade Fire set the goosebump-inducing blueprint on their debut.
They taught a new generation of alternative artists how to be both mighty and vulnerable. That’s a feeling that’s timeless and, as a result, Funeral is, “a record that still holds up pretty damn well,” as Butler puts it.
Funeral turns 15 today. Stream it here.