My Year in Lists chronicles one blogger's quest to understand why music matters to us and what makes it a lasting aspect of our existence. To facilitate this examination, three music fans have contributed a list of 52 essential albums. Each week this year, one album off of each list will be analyzed in an attempt to understand why some music sticks with us and what it means for our lives.
"If the children don't grow up, our bodies get bigger but our hearts get torn up."-Arcade Fire, "Wake Up"
We've talked a lot over the course of this feature about critical and cultural views on music, both of which are essential to a wider view of the medium, its strengths, its weaknesses, and its importance to us as a culture. Yet that isn't really why most of us love music. Most of us love our favorite music because it means something to us personally. We love what we love because of when we heard it, how we connected with it, and what it means to us. Sometimes it's a great break-up album, sometimes its just a viewpoint we connect with. Whatever it is, some music hits us much closer to home than any examination of its critical and cultural merits can possibly describe.
I've mentioned some music that has mattered to me and does matter to me over the course of this feature. Some of it we've covered in this space, and some of what we've covered in this space has come to mean much to me. This week, though, is the first time we will be covering an album that carried deep personal meaning for me from the first few months after its release. I think that Arcade Fire's Funeral is one of the best albums of the last decade, and one of the most important. Either of these is reason enough to love it, and I do love it for both of those reasons, but neither encompasses the true reasons for my love. I honestly think that Arcade Fire (a band, it should be noted that garners near universal praise) is consistently underrated as a band. Its either that or I read far too much meaning into every one of their releases. To me, 2007's Neon Bible is a dark indictment of Bush-era America with all its paranoia and religious fanaticism, a near-perfect encapsulation of its times.
Last year's The Suburbs, which topped many best of lists and won the Grammy for Best Album (making people wonder if The Grammy's were worth caring about again) was very rarely analyzed as the assessment of the promises and failings of Obama and an of the moment look at the consequences of the housing bubble's burst that I see it as (I still maintain that, while I like "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)" more, "We Used to Wait" is the most important song of the decade so far). The group's second and third albums perfectly mix analysis of their specific moments in time with looks at the deeper cultural and philosophical issues they enlighten. And while I love them both dearly, neither will ever come close to Funeral. To me, no album exists that says more about life and death, about aging and growing up (and the difference between the two), about the relationships between parents and kids and what they can each teach each other. Put simply, Funeral is a masterpiece.I've avoided doing this since we looked at The Velvet Underground and Nico way back in Week Three, but to make my case for my own, very personal and very singular read on Funeral, I want to take the album track by track. It might take a little while, so if you don't care about Arcade Fire, scroll down a bit and read what I have to say on Portion Control and Mogwai below.
Before we get into it, it is important for me to give brief context. In the year before the album was released, four band members lost loved ones. Regine Chassagne's grandmother died in 2003, Win and William Butler's grandfather, swing-musician Alvino Rey died in March of 2004 and Richard Reed Parry's aunt died in April of 2004. It is with this mindset that the group delved into some of the headiest questions they have yet tackled.
As I see it, Funeral cleaves pretty neatly into two halves, with the first five songs forming the "Neighborhood cycle," which addresses many of the dreams, nightmares, stresses and conflicts of childhood. The opening track, "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)" is a fragile and haunting examination of childhood escapism taken completely seriously to its extremes. The song follows two people who escape their homes (at least one of whom does so to avoid his fighting parents) and make a new society out in the snow. First their hair grows out, then they begin to forget society entirely as their skin thickens from the freezing environment. Eventually they have children, but have forgotten all of the names they used to know and are incapable of naming them. Occasionally they remember the comforts of the society they used to be apart of, but they have shed all of their true ties to a world they felt uncomfortable in. As the last refrain, "purify the colors, purify my mind" tells us, they have become in some way purer by escaping the control of their parents.
"Neighborhood #2 (Laika)" is named after the first living creature in space, a dog the Russians sent up. Many have also interpreted the repeated references to "Alexander" throughout the song as referring to Alexander Supertramp, who left society behind and died for his efforts (his story is documented in the book and film Into the Wild, both of which I hate. I think Christopher McCandless, his real name, was a complete idiot who has been turned into some sort of existential cause, but even those who like to think of the song this way should have no problem with the rest of my interpretation). Either way, the song can be read more broadly as another escapist narrative from a troubled home. In this case, it seems the protagonists older brother (my version of Alex that doesn't force me to contend with McCandless while loving the album) is escaping the through of his parents and cutting them out of his life, which leads to the childish, naÃ¯ve chorus, "Come on Alex, you can do it, 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." Alex has escaped his childhood, and wants nothing from his parents anymore.
"Une Anee Sans Lumiere," while not technically bearing the title "Neighborhood" acts as a symbolic if not completely literal prelude to the next track. The title translates as "A Year Without Light" and seems to discuss a father ignoring his children in the darkness while they try futilely to make their way about the house and out into the world. The next song, "Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)" continues this theme of parental abandonment and children's initially exuberant and eventually depressed and dangerous reactions to it. The song is ostensibly about the Montreal power outage in 1998 that kept the city in darkness for a week, but can also easily be read as a parable for the lack of parental influence in a child's life. Things quickly devolve into chaos, with kids swinging on power lines and dying out in the snow, and the violence in the heart of man is quickly turned into violent actions by the kids against one another.
If "Neighborhood #3" is about the dangers of no parental support, then "Neighborhood #4 (7 Kettles)" is about the dangers of believing too easily what your parents teach you, and about the slow realization of some undeniable facts of existence. The protagonist learns that, "time keeps creeping through the neighborhood, killing old folks, waking up babies, just like we knew it would," realizing that time marches inexorably forward, that mortality is inevitably part of being alive. He also learns some of the darkness inherent in humanity, as "All the neighbors are starting up a fire, burning all the old folks, the witches and the liars." He even learns about the failing of religion, discovering that "its not heaven I'm pining for." Perhaps most significantly for the album's larger purposes, though, the protagonist learns the inherent falseness of an old wives tale he got from his parents. In the chorus he discovers, "They say a watched pot won't ever boil, well I closed my eyes and nothing changed, just some water getting hotter in the flames." This is important for two reasons. First off, he has learned that as much as he might want to, he can't always rely on his parents to tell him the harsh truths about the world. Secondly, though, he has learned that there are cold, hard facts to this life that cannot be changed by will, nor by superstition. The wives tale is a way to comfort a waiting child and to dismiss them, but he has learned that this is false comfort. A watched pot will boil, eventually, just as we will all die at some point, and just like closing our eyes won't help water heat, pining for heaven isn't going to stave off the harsh reality of death.
If the first half of the album is about childhood, the second half of the album is about growing up, which sometimes means recognizing these difficult realities, sometimes means obscuring truths we can't handle, and occasionally means embracing some of the childish things we've tried to leave behind. "Crown of Love" is about a first heartbreak and how difficult it can be to overcome it. As the opening lines opine, "They say it fades if you let it, love was made to forget it" but the protagonist here seems torn between believing that cynical view and fighting for a hopeless love. "Crown of Love" seems to chart a time in our life we all go through after our first real heartbreak, a time where our heart freezes over and we are immobilized by pain. If our first love failed, we reason, why should any other succeed? What's the point of trying? The closing refrain, "your name is the only word I can say" is emblematic of this period, where we are all so overcome with angst and emotion it seems like the world itself is crumbling around us and nothing will ever get better.
Of course, it does get better, and we learn from our mistakes. This is where "Wake Up," perhaps the thematic center of the album, comes into play. The song starts in the same place "Crown of Love" ended, with the lines, "something filled up my heart with nothing, someone told me not to cry." The song then seems to follow the slow awakening from this heartbreak, the maturation from childish, naÃ¯ve love into a functioning adult who can learn, slowly, over time to open himself up again, who can "look out for love." This doesn't mean the pain of the former heartbreak goes away, of course. "Now that I'm older, my heart's colder," we are told, "and I can see that it's a lie." We also get one of the most fundamentally true assertions of the album in the lines, "If the children don't grow up, our bodies get bigger but our hearts get torn up, we're just a million little gods causing rainstorms, turning every good thing to rust. I guess we'll just have to adjust." This comes roughly at the half way point for the song, and makes an incredibly important point for the album. Pain is part of life, and no one who really lives makes it far into adulthood without experiencing some serious, psychologically traumatic pain. In some ways, we don't grow up, we just get hurt more, and as our hearts get torn up, we form ourselves into the people we eventually become. But that is not, and cannot be, the final answer. That is a childish, self-centered view to take, the view of someone still suffering selfishly, still shutting out the world. In that instance, we are behaving like a petulant God, causing rainstorms for everyone around us and turning every good thing that comes our way into rust in the process. So what do we do? "I guess we'll just have to adjust."
The second half of the song gives us a little guidance here. The reverie that ends the song seems to be the waking up of all the emotions that were repressed during "Crown of Love," an attempted return to childish joyousness. Instead of destroying everything with rainstorms, the little gods we are can use lightning bolts to illuminate the path before us, and we can finally take the advice, "you better look out for love." I fully recognize, by the way, that the actual last lyric of this song is, "you'd better look out below," which also makes since in this reading, as the protagonist is finally diving back into life, but I originally heard it as, "you better look out for love," and while both work, the former seems like better, more optimistic advice. Having finally woken up from our emotional coma, its time to get back out into the world.
At first blush, "Haiti," a pretty straightforward ode to Regine Chassagne's homeland, might seem like it single-handedly derails my reading of the album. Yet would I really have wasted over a thousand words were that the case? (Maybe. But I didn't). As I see it, "Haiti" is about the part of yourself you leave behind as you grow up. Some of that is the great memories of childhood, some of that is the troubles you've gone through, and some of that is (to some extent) your family, who we all must at least metaphorically leave during the aging process. "Haiti" then is a beautiful land we'll never see again, a place where we were formed, but a place we can't easily return to, a place that we have to break away from to truly mature.
Hence, "Rebellion (Lies)". On the surface, the song is about attempting to rebel against sleep itself, but more fundamentally it's a song about rebelling against all the ideas that were thrown your way, refusing to take things at face value and dedicating yourself to making up your own mind. "People say that you'll die faster than without water, but we know its just a lie, scare your son, scare your daughter," tells us that many of the ideas we are given are tools of oppression, either parentally or in our larger lives, but like we learned in both "Neighborhood #4" and "Wake Up," closing our eyes doesn't change the facts, it just lets us get carried along with the stories we're told. "People say that your dreams are the only things that save you," but we know that not to be true. We can save ourselves, not by shielding ourselves from the pain and by believing the lies, but by waking up to the truth and living our lives our own way.
I have often suggested before that someone should write a thesis on existential agency in the work of Arcade Fire, based around the metaphor of driving. People always think I'm kidding when I say that for some reason. If "Wake Up," "Haiti," and "Rebellion (Lies)" are instructions on how we should be living our lives, "In the Backseat" is a lullaby of an admonition, a warning about just drifting along your whole life. "I've been learning to drive my whole life," the singer tells us, and yet, "I like the peace in the back seat, I don't have to drive, I don't have to speak, I can watch the countryside and I can fall asleep." So long as you don't fight to take control of your life, to make your own decisions, and to "drive" your existence, it's pretty easy to coast along. As a late night lullaby, "In the Backseat" is gentle, gorgeous, and persuasive, but as a philosophy of life, the song seems to slowly push us towards the realization that living in the backseat isn't truly being alive (if you think I'm talking out of my ass at this point, listen to every other Arcade Fire song about driving, including "Keep the Car Running," "No Cars Go," "The Suburbs," and several others and tell me driving isn't a metaphor for existential agency in their work).
Apologies to Tab and Ashley, whose picks will get short shrift this week due to this huge analysis (by way of being fair, I already did this elongated treatment for Tab back with The Velvet Underground, and will do it for Ashley in a few week's time when we look at Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea), but let's dive right in so as to not make this the longest installment of My Year in Lists ever.
Portion Control are an electronic and industrial band from South London, who call themselves electropunk. Tab's picks this week, the 1983 compilation Simulate Sensual and the 1984 album "¦Step Forward give us a good grounding in the group's work, which certainly fits up to the genre of electropunk but largely fails to distinguish itself from the sea of electronic and industrial music that surrounds it. Neither release is bad by any stretch, but neither do they have a particularly unique sound. It's less that I will forget about Portion Control in a few minutes and more that I've forgotten them right now, while I'm listening to them.
"Simulate Sensual" is a percussion heavy electronic piece that involve repeating the title phrase and a slow devolution into guttural roars. "He is Patriotic" involves sampling, which briefly distracts from the fact that the track is largely just another percussion heavy industrial piece.
"Tex Mex," and, for that matter, most of the material on "¦Step Forward, is a bit more tuneful than the group's previous work, and it makes for a more enjoyable listening experience. "Tin" is a heavily synthesized track that sounds like the score to an "˜80s Nintendo game, pleasant enough to scroll along to but nothing entirely revolutionary. Portion Control is a band more famous for the people they inspired than for the work they produced. It's clear that sample heavy groups like The Prodigy and Fatboy Slim took some pages from Portion Control, and some of the synthetic sounds they produced on "¦Step Forward sound like they had an influence on early "˜90s Depeche Mode, especially in a song like "Havoc Man."
Mogwai, on the other hand, is a completely different story. Listening to the group's debut album, and Ashley's pick this week, Young Team (otherwise known as Mogwai Young Team) is a fairly profound, moving experience. What Mogwai crafts are less songs than complete sonic worlds the band invites you to inhabit for the length of their songs. It's easy to get lost in a Mogwai song, to drift away and find yourself somewhere completely new. Each of the ten tracks on this album feels completely unique, and each takes you to a totally different place.
"Yes! I Am a Long Way From Home," opens with a spoken word piece, a recording of a monologue being recited by Mari Myren. Myren describes the bands sound as, "bigger than words and wider than pictures," and says "If the stars had a sound, it would sound like this." I find it hard to disagree. The song is slow and quiet yet powerful and potentially infinite, dragging you in and leaving you helpless against its power. "Like Herod" is an 11 minute epic that finds meaning and then dwells on it throughout. It can feel redundant at times, but it has more staying power than you might expect on first listen.
"Radar Maker" is the slightest song on the album by far, at a scant 1:36, yet its spare, mournful piano stays with you long after it ends. This is the rare song that leaves you wanting so very much more, yet it is so Spartan in its perfection it is difficult to argue with. "Tracy" is bookended by prank phone calls that mock a supposed feud between band members, and while the fight is fake, the song that plays in between is so different from the band's standard style it might have actually caused some disputes. Leaving behind guitars for glockenspiel, the song is quiet and rhythmic in its simplicity, a beautiful, dreamily atmospheric song that seems to flow between the calls like a river of sonic emotion, filling in the silence that supposedly existed between the band members with the melancholy and loneliness they might have been feeling.
Mogwai is unlike any other band I've yet listened to for this feature. Their brand of post-rock is so intoxicating, intriguing, and ingenious it belies explanation. Words cannot adequately capture the way this album feels, but it does feel, and it makes you feel right along with it. Waves of sound fly into your ears and a sonic world is perfectly, beautifully constructed with each track. It's quite an experience.
Some music hits us close to home in a way that makes it hard to explain to others. Some music transcends culture and criticism, managing to be a singular experience for everyone that hears it. For me, Arcade Fire's Funeral will always be one such album, and while I'm sure my reading of it differs greatly from yours, it has managed to mean so much to me it hardly matters if I've got it right. When I look at Funeral, I see life in all of its majesty, all of its frailty and all of its complexity. It hits me right where I live, and part of the reason I live there is because of this album. When I hear Portion Control, I fail to connect, but I hear the inklings of why so many groups (Especially those who rely on sampling) feel the same way about them that I feel about Arcade Fire. And Mogwai, well, Mogwai just transcends my words entirely, giving me an experience I can't quite explain but can't help loving unabashedly nevertheless. Some music hits us close to home, and that music, whatever it is and for whatever reason we love it, is the stuff that sticks with us. And for some of us, it means everything.
Read more My Year in Lists here
Next week on My Year in Lists:
We will take a (much briefer, I promise) look at 17 singles by Organum, see how Animal Collective Feels, and let Radiohead battle technology in Ok Computer.