Tuesday, March 22, 2005

1974: A.F.

Aretha FRANKLIN
Until You Come Back To Me (That's What I'm Gonna Do) (16 Feb - 26)

One can become too isolated. While listening to music in solitude certainly allows the listener to build for himself a particular version of the world (or a specific bunker in which to hide oneself from the world), if you do not listen to music communally, whether in an audience or at the home of friends, you are literally missing half the story. Sometimes I feel that's what I've done of late, having such scant opportunity to listen to music in congenial company. Thus you can yawn discreetly at the LCD Soundsystem album, only to have your notions overturned a few weeks later as you witness friends and colleagues enjoying it, having fun and dancing to it. That, you might well say, is the point. But where does the communal aspect start and the personal perspective stop?

In answer to the question frequently asked as to why I had not become a professional music writer in the early '80s when I had the opportunity, my stock response is to say that it was not necessary for me to convey my views and passions to an audience, for I already had the ideal audience. I felt that mutual one-to-one reactions to music were, frankly, our personal business and none of yours. Then three-and-a-half years ago that audience was suddenly no longer there, so I had to find a new one.

But with Funeral, the debut album by Montreal's The Arcade Fire, a record which has been in my house for some time but has only recently been played in the company of others, I am now starting to feel that maybe what I think about this record is "our" business, reluctant as I am to go into detail about friends visibly moved to tears, or to euphoria, sometimes simultaneously, as they were listening to Funeral. Let's be honest, there is no bigger kick than playing your record collection to someone else and find that they enjoy it, can relate to it. But then there is the very occasional record which can puncture a gathering of people at a deeper communal level and can directly speak to, and of, all of us (or at least all of us gathered in the front room). Funeral, I feel, is such a record - perhaps the first such record there has been since Music From Big Pink.

As with their Canadian forefathers The Band, The Arcade Fire offer us a direct line to simplicity of emotion, but expressed in music of deceptive complexity. I am loath even to use words such as "deceptive" in this context because The Arcade Fire do not set out to deceive anyone. Funeral is so called (and such a name for a debut album!) because it was made in the immediate wake of, and in direct emotional reaction to, the deaths of several elderly members of the bands' families over the preceeding year. Remarkably it manages to avoid sentimentality entirely; the emotions it expresses are almost brutal in their realness, but compassionate in their articulation. Much has been made of the main voice heard on the album, that of Win Butler, in terms of its being "weak." If anything, Butler's voice is extremely reminiscent of Ian McCulloch, and his sudden, confident octave leaps on songs such as "Power Out" and "Crown Of Love" do not betray technical inadequacy. Yet there is also a naked vulnerability in Butler's singing which also puts me very much in mind of The Band's Richard Manuel - listen to the latter's "Lonesome Suzie" off Big Pink and see what I mean - with a quiet (and occasionally not so quiet) determination to be proud of its "weakness," particularly as it is set, musically, against what could reliably be called "The Big Music" (pace the Waterboys). The opening track, "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)" with its not-quite-translucent, distorted high strings and piano (it could almost be the renegade piano from the middle section of "Beach Baby"), sets us up for a year zero Joshua Tree - an epic done from scratch, shed of any prehistoric pomp. It cannot be an accident that the song's rhythm is identical to that of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," and there is a similar steady but unstoppable momentum through this song about trying to turn lead into gold ("Spread the ashes of the colors over this heart of mine!"), about trying to unite with each disconnected other, not by screaming about how you're going to knock on their door and tap on their windowpane through a loudhailer, but by building a tunnel - "And if my parents are crying then I'll dig a tunnel from my window to yours."

In this scenario, "Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)" is the album's equivalent to "Where The Streets Have No Name" but its jerky rhythms are far more urgent - as if Butler will die if the song stops - as over increasing strata of guitars and percussion the singer proclaims "Light a candle for the kids, Jesus Christ don't keep it hid!/...And the power's out in the heart of man, take it from your heart, put it in your hand." The effect is scarily uplifting, like being abducted to the top of the Telecom Tower. And in many ways, this could also pass as Talking Heads' "Road To Somewhere" - note the frenetic vocal on "Neighborhood #2 (Laika)" which could have come straight out of Fear Of Music ("Cities" specifically) with its "Alexander, our older brother, set out for a great adventure" intro and its bowel-lowering chord change halfway through.

"Crown Of Love" seems like a newly (and desperately) excavated doowop song - "Please Stay" for an impermanent new century - which again provokes a profoundly confused but emotionally inviolate vocal from Butler ("In my heart there's flowers growin' on the grave of our old love"). Again the music builds up stealthily until the sun breaks, the tempo doubles, and the strings scrape out a reincarnated ELO riff; exceptionally euphoric, as though he has managed to clamber out of the grave. "Wake Up" finds the newly reawakened Butler demanding that we allow all of our souls to be punctured in defiance of our own inevitable passing ("With my lightnin' bolts a-glowin' I can see where I am goin' to be when the reaper he reaches and touches my hand") over a mass choral singalong. And when it changes key, as you were dying for it to do, you realise that this is the genuinely skykissing record which Oasis might have made had they paid less attention to how the Beatles had done it. Even this is not the end, for at 3:51 the song breaks into a Northern Soul/Motown gallop ("You Can't Hurry Love" meets "Lust For Life"), gradually breaking down into its children's glockenspiel and plucked violin components.

And anyone - U2, the Bunnymen, Oasis, whoever - would be proud to have come up with "Rebellion (Lies)" which somehow succeeds in wedding Wire's skeletal pragmatism with a propulsion seeming to owe more to Acid House than to any notions of rock. The unstoppable rush of Butler's "Every time you close your eyes" mantra makes one weep for all the lost chances, all the dull compromises, which British "rock" has made in the last decade - it really does come across as Heaven Up Here - in many ways, the record about which I last felt this "passionate" - reborn.

And then it goes one divine step further.

You hear her voice jovially urging the lost brother of "Laika" ("Come on Alex, don't die or dry up!"). You hear her again, interacting warmly with Butler in bilingual bliss in "Une Annee Sans Lumiere" (the gorgeous balladry of the first half giving way to the raging rock of the second). Her drumming throughout is like the judge's gavel of Levon Helm ("We Can Talk About It Now") smashing the self-constructed coffin open and allowing breath to flow into her again. She is Regine Chassagne, and her two, seemingly unobtrusive tracks, take Funeral to a new emotional and temporal level. First there is "Haiti" with its police siren guitars and hushingly discordant keyboards and its bilingual lyric about fleeing "the soldiers angry yelling," delving deeper into the woods ("In the forest we are hiding, unmarked graves where flowers go"). Her scarcely-stopping-short-of-tearful voice stopped the heartbeats of everybody in that front room.

And she is also given the finale, "In The Backseat," which for the only time on the album expresses explicit grief. Her voice is perhaps similar, stylistically, to Bjork, but emotionally Regine far outstrips the Icelander. Over a chord sequence so gorgeous as to inspire the desire for death, Regine weeps openly ("The lightning bolt made enough heat" - i.e. the aftermath of "Wake Up" - "to melt the street beneath your feet.../The family tree's losing all its leaves/Crashing towards the driver's seat"), and, as though to take her in its arms and embrace her lovingly, the song (which hitherto has seemed like a broadcast from an unexpected afterlife) expands accordingly, opens up with a truly epic string flourish and leitmotif which continues to build as Regine wails "Alice died in the night," "I've been learning to drive all my life," and the final, cataclysmic scream of "Oh, Norah!" - as she watches all the familiar landmarks of her world fall away, as she watches herself getting older, realising that eventually she will be the only landmark left. At the song's climax an undertow of improvised, pointillistic string flurries enters beneath the proud ending, and soon enough everything dies away, leaving the violins to scuttle about - the dawn chorus of birds, reborn for a new and hopefully better world, saying a littler but deeper prayer.