How to Ride a Wake

Or, the Arcade Fire puts the fun in Funeral.

The short history of the Arcade Fire is fast being laid down in meteoric highs and dismal lows. During the year and a half since forming, the Montreal sextet has lived through the deaths of three family members, survived the dark chill of a Canadian winter, and worked crappy, on-the-black bakery jobs to cover expenses recording its debut LP, Funeral.

So maybe it’s to be expected when a scheduled interview from the road finds that they’ve traded cell-phones (presumably to corral nosy interviewers), and guitarist Richard Parry, stricken with flu, answers the call instead of lead singer and songwriter Win Butler. And maybe Parry can be excused a degree of bitchiness when, asked how many interviews he’s already done today, he sniffles, “Too many.”

Fortunately or unfortunately for the Arcade Fire, the interview requests aren’t likely to stop anytime soon. Funeral, released just two months ago, is quite possibly the best rock record of the year, and the pop populace from Virginia to Vancouver knows it. Since the band started its tour in September, nearly every night has brought another sold-out show—not only in word-of-mouth strongholds like New York City or L.A., but in towns like Knoxville and Iowa City. A quick Google search for the band brings up as many bootlegged live songs and photos from music blogs as magazine articles, of which there are many. Of the blogs, most describe the live shows in harrowing scenes of packed, sweat-hazed clubs and the violently jubilant onstage contortions of the 6-foot-4-inch Butler in a motorcycle helmet.

Such a scene is believable: the tales of mayhem matching the sound from the album, an itchy teaser for a live performance if ever there were one. The songs, with lyrics at once melancholy and overtly hopeful, are rapturously delivered with the strength of a marching band. They transform stealthily from rocking anthems to sorrowful ballads and sweet, orchestral pop. In keeping with the Arcade Fire’s oscillating fate, the songs were written during a stormy summer when Butler, Parry and singer Régine Chassagne lost a grandfather, grandmother and two aunts, respectively—and Butler, 24, and Chassagne, 28, got married. (Butler’s grandfather was legendary pedal steel player Alvino Rey.)

“You can’t not be conscious of it, of course,” says Parry of the deaths and their effect on the band. “But we were never like, ‘Hey, people are dying—now let’s make a statement.’ It’s just what you do. It’s what happens.”

True. Funeral is a concept album, not a confessional revue. While its 10 tracks definitely take inspiration from death (noted by the band on the second page of the album’s liner notes), the album is more a treatise on transformation and, in its most sincere moments, an ode to growing up—and growing old. It’s a suburban drama (and were the album a play, it would be as much a comedy as a tragedy) unfolding in acts, as real and perceptive as Over the Edge or The Outsiders were onscreen. There’s love and camaraderie; “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” finds parents crying in the living room while the kids plot escapes from windows and chimneys to dig tunnels through a snowstorm for a night in the empty town. There’s loss of innocence; in “Neighborhood #2 (Laïka),” younger siblings watch anxiously as an older brother (who shares a nickname with the first dog in space) breaks down in the grown-up world they know they’ll soon face. They cheer him on, for their own sakes as much as for his: “Come on Alex/ there’s nothing to it/ if you want something/ don’t ask for nothing/ if you want nothing/ don’t ask for something!”

And, of course, there’s revolt. “Rebellion (Lies)”—the top contender to kick-start a spontaneous “holy shit” moment live—rallies the kids to wake up with its anthemic chorus, a driving pulse that sounds like it could have been born with Talking Heads’ “Road to Nowhere” for a father and ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” for a mother.

The kids have heard the rallying cry, it seems, and found it authentic—but so have the music writers. In the end, can the Arcade Fire service both of them?

“It’s different if what you’re going for is to be the hot shit, to be a buzz band,” Parry says. “But we were never going for that anyway. To us, nothing’s changing due to the outward success of the album.”

The Arcade Fire plays with the Weakerthans, Murder By Death and Fembots Friday at the Bossanova Ballroom, 722 E Burnside St., 233-7855. 8 pm. $10. All ages.

Originally published in Willamette Week