In the early 2000s indie was something of a one note entity in the eyes of the mainstream, a fringe scene occupied almost entirely by post-punk revival and garage-rock bands playing guitar driven, catchy, easily digestible music. There existed the very occasional exception like Radiohead and Death Cab for Cutie who stood out from the crowd but the turn of the century was dominated by sunglasses indoors and guys with floppy hair in leather jackets showing the cameraman their best pout.
It wasn’t a bad period but it does put Arcade Fire’s debut record in perfect contextual weirdness. The Killers, Franz Ferdinand and The Libertines all released slick, streamlined, fantastic albums and it seemed ludicrous at the time that the next big thing for the scene would be something so grandiose and excessive. And yet on the 14th of September 2004 Funeral was released and suddenly everything seemed a lot different. Lyrical simplicity gave way to intricate poeticism and metaphor. The garage-rock and post-punk bands faded into the background, it was time for Animal Collective, Deerhunter, The National, TV on The Radio and Phoenix to have their time in the spotlight. Even long established rock veterans like Coldplay and U2 began to follow suit, it’s extremely hard to not see a little bit of Wake Up in songs like Viva La Vida and the recently released U2 track The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone). And let us not forget that in 2004 U2 would open their concerts by playing none other than, you guessed it, Wake Up. Funeral is a telling title because it was an album that spelled both the end and the rebirth of its genre. Indie Rock is dead, long live Indie Rock.
The impact of Funeral is far more than just an historical one however. Funeral was, and still is so universally and directly emotional in every moment, from the opening piano chords twinkling away on Neighbourhood #1 evoking wintery, nostalgic images to the distorted guitars and Win Butler’s wailed vocals on Neighbourhood #3 which add to the desperate bleakness of the song’s story, recounting an ice storm that killed 37 people in Montreal in 1998 to the utter euphoria that Wake Up’s glorious, wordless chorus evokes. Its emotional spectrum is so broad and it so lovingly dips into melodrama at every opportunity that it gives this sense that all emotions matter.
The Montreal band’s debut may be considered an album primarily about death and swimming in lyrical bleakness but its hopeful moments are so enormous and euphoric and pierce through the bleakness so sharply that it encompasses the whole emotional spectrum. The otherwise overwhelmingly bleak Neighbourhood #3 illustrates this perfectly when it calls out to its listeners to “Take it from your heart/put it in your hand”, telling us that we should fight not just for our convictions and what’s important to us, but with them. It’s an album that reminds you that it’s good to be sad sometimes, that grief can lead to self-progression and discovery and that there is joy even in bleakness. More so than any specific emotion it attempts to convey, Funeral is a validation of all emotion, it’s a cry to stand up and say without shame that you love, hate, celebrate, grieve, get sad, feel joy and everything in between. Arcade Fire wants you to know that you feel, and that it’s because of that you are human.
Funeral survives ten years on because it is huge and encompassing of past, present and future. It’s hard to listen to it and not hear the influences of Springsteen and U2 and even indie folk giants Neutral Milk Hotel but it takes elements so lovingly and without pretence that it comes across more as an amalgamation or evolution of these elements than uninspired copying. It stood out so sharply against the guitar driven indie rock of the time that it couldn’t help but take over the world with its bleak yet euphoric magic. And as the last lines of Wake Up affirmed “With my lightning bolts a glowing/I can see where I am going/You better look out below!” Considering our being awash with Funs and Imagine Dragons and Animal Collectives Arcade Fire did more than see where we were all going in indie rock, they made our path with those lightning bolts, and we’re still walking down it today.