It was interesting to carry out a basic field poll with friends, colleagues and barmen about Arcade Fire almost fifteen years after their debut album Funeral came out in 2004. 'They've got a few good songs,' 'Funeral is an absolute classic' and 'Who?' were three responses that I got when doing very basic, comprehensively limited and unscientific research over the last few weeks.
Funeral was undoubtedly the edifice on which the band established their reputation and built their fame all those years ago. Enormously heralded at the time and still revered, on the Best Ever Album site, (as good a modern measurement of such things as exists) it's ranked as seventh best album ever made. Below three Beatles albums but ahead of Led Zeppelin IV and The Velvet Underground & Nico for goodness sake! I'm sure time will restore common sense and order and it will drop below both of these eventually. But it's a ranking worth some thought and scrutiny, so I'll try to give it my own personal judgement here.
I actually bought this record on vinyl just before Christmas, the first time I've ever owned a copy in any format, so it must have wormed its way into my consciousness somehow over fifteen years. Listening to it now it's having pretty much the same effect on me as the band always has. There's much to admire but also much that grates.
So first of all what grates? Win Butler's voice, the self-regard, the relentless melodrama, calling four of the first five tracks Neighborhood, (a staggering act of pretension, tell me where I'm wrong), and more which I'll proceed to outline. And to admire? The arrangements, which are often staggeringly graceful, the sheer ambition, and most of all, perhaps the band's ultimate achievement, nailing the vague hysterical emotion that is definitely a key ingredient of being alive whether we like it or not. The fact that I'd say this is the absolute key ingredient in the Arcade Fire concoction and has been ever since may be an indication as to why the band have not managed to sustain the almost universal critical acclaim they were initially greeted with on the release of Funeral.They are in many respects, the ultimate Marmite band.
Saying that, I've written the review up to this point while listening to the first side of the record from start to finish and am still steeling myself to turn it over and listen to Side 2 is as good a measure of any as to where I stand personally in this discussion. I'm still, after fifteen years, in the 'don't know', camp with a tendency to lean towards, 'not today thanks'. While I could with little effort compile an Arcade Fire playlist of absolute top rank stuff there's much else that I respond to with 'please give it a rest'.
Because ultimately we cannot live our lives like this all the time. If I happened to meet the ultimate Arcade Fire fan, I would probably want to avoid him or her like the plague. Having Norma Desmond in our universe is a wonderful thing but none of us would really want to live with her. When Arcade Fire first appeared, they were often most readily compared to Talking Heads, (understandibly), but too often they veer towards U2. They miss the point.
The band would probably prefer to be compared to Echo & the Bunnymen than U2. Much of Neon Bible, their deeply flawed second album tried and failed to nail that band's peak period bruised majesty. What the Bunnymen and Talking Heads both have though which Arcade Fire don't in my book is a fierce sense of dry humour and perspective which makes their best stuff genuinely epic in stature. Neither of them played consciously to the back row of the arena as U2 and Arcade Fire so often did. So while U2 and Arcade Fire are bigger, Talking Heads and The Bunnymen are better.
Perhaps I'm doing Funeral a disservice as I continue to listen and write. It's full of fine songs which have understandably achieved classic status over the years with countless people. It's almost a greatest hits set from a debut album which is a rare achievement in itself. Perhaps whenever from now on I'm in need of hysteria, (and that does happen to me), it will become my go to record. But I can't help but feel that a part of my beef with Arcade Fire is that too much of the raging ambition that fuels their work is thirst for universal acclaim and its resultant wealth rather than respect and awe for the music itself. Perhaps an indication of this is Win Butler's public sense of humour failure in response to the critical bashing of the band's latest 'ironic' state of the world address Everything Now. Like U2 they thirst to be loved as well as rich and sometimes you just can't have both.
So I feel slightly bruised from my almost fifty minute encounter with Funeral. I feel like I need to sit down in quiet and have a cup of tea. Arcade Fire are pretty relentless company. They continued to be so ever after Funeral thrust them firmly into the spotlight. They've had peaks and troughs since. In terms of recommendations I'd direct the curious to this, The Suburbs and Reflektor as their finest works. Even as a slight dissenter from the general consensus I'll admit that they're good. Just not quite as good as they think they are. For the band themselves who would doubtless be less than content with my own, (in the scheme of things, slightly meaningless), assessment, I'd point them towards Speaking in Tongues, Heaven Up Here and Marquee Moon. Meanwhile, I'm off for that cup of tea.
P.S. Along with my cup of tea I listened to a Joan Armatrading album. It cheered me up enormously.