Shedding fans with death-inspired pop music is easy. You could take the grieving tribute route and lose those who don't give a damn about Princess Di, or you could try the annoyingly chipper carpe diem path taken by every songwriter who's ever survived a tour bus tumbling into a ditch. With a breakthrough album called Funeral dedicated to several recently deceased family members, the Arcade Fire face some gloomy expectations. But despite spending most of the year dressed in black, the Montreal group takes a different approach. Over a bed of dancey orchestral comfort songs, singer Win Butler presents himself as a teenager, at times eerily aware of a future spent without the rest of his family. He hides his emotions from his folks, planning an escape and musing on that foreboding sense of independence: "Then we think of our parents, well, whatever happened to them?"
The role of bedroom poet comes with its share of mood swings. In "Neighborhood #2 (Laïka)," Butler adopts David Byrne's "Psycho Killer" agitation with such accuracy that it's almost disappointing when the line, "If you want something, don't ask for nothing!" isn't followed by "Say something once, why say it again?" The instant crowd-pleaser "Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)" starts with an ominous distorted guitar riff and drums straight out of INXS, only to break into a sort of glockenspiel-accompanied bounce-and-shout conga line. When it comes to the group's subtle dabbles in '80s nostalgia, Butler's wife and bandmate Régine Chassagne is an invaluable asset, sounding like Siouxsie-lite on one track and a less alien Björk on the next. But she also offers the most candidly sentimental moments with "In the Backseat," where she calmly explains, "My family tree's losing all its leaves" before resorting to chilling howls.
If the Arcade Fire had gotten stuck on any step of the grieving process, the result wouldn't be the poignant prize of Funeral. But as Butler wisely notes in "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)," "Our skin gets thicker from living out in the snow." While other mourning musicians roll in cemetery dirt, this band chooses to dig in the white stuff, which always promises something better come spring.
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