Saturday, December 31, 2005
Albums Of The Year: Number 1
Some albums you can sense coming. Going backwards in this list alone, surely most people who followed the Decemberists' career path could see them developing away from the piratical bent towards a fuller sound to complement Meloy's stories; early talk of the Elbow album had led us to expect something homely yet worldly at the same time; Sufjan has always sweated the small stuff; even though Maximo Park were virtually unknown at the end of 2004 the north east had a growing reputation. What we think was part of the greatness of Funeral, an album that we've had in one form or another for more than a year and are still deriving fresh enjoyment out of, is although Canada had a similarly burgeoning scene over the previous couple of years there was no real collective drive or line that could be drawn between, say, GY!BE, the Dears and Broken Social Scene. While the Arcade Fire were known locally as a purveyor of mini-epics, it doesn't seem as if there was a weight of expectation up to last autumn. Then this came out, and suddenly it all made all kinds of sense.
Like most people, we have a theory that truly special songs have to have a moment or a passage which just lifts the song out of mere qualified praise and into something just special, and listening back to Funeral it dawns on us that every single track here has one: the wordless ghostly mini-coda on Tunnels - you won't mind if we abbreviate the Neighborhood sequence, will you? - immediately after Win Butler's voice finally cracks under the strain, the way everything but the drums and violins drop out after the second chorus on Laika, the way Une Anne Sans Lumiere subtly alters from a second cousin to Another Brick In The Wall to a dank campfire lament and then launches the distorted guitars and echo to disrupt the temporal flow, Power Out blistering out of the blocks and becoming more overwhelming to the culminating point of Win's desperate cry "you ain't fooling no-one!", 7 Kettles' dramatic strings, Crown Of Love's jarringly playful waltz time against melodramatic strings that suddenly find themselves leading on the gatecrashing disco drums, Wake Up's unresting, fist pumping big drums up until the moment it goes all You Can't Hurry Love, Regine Chassagne melding her voice, her voice at a higher octave and a droning organ at a similar pitch at one moment during the not un-Sugarcubes-esque Haiti, Rebellion (Lies) building and building constantly upon its basic themes as if driven on by the "lies! lies!" backing vocals, and In The Backseat fooling the listener into lulling on the bed of gorgeous strings and Chassange's voice until briefly exploding with overdriven guitars and violins and ending with a fadeout freak-out. In this age of the single track, this is an album that works as an album, establishing a thematic and musical arc from beginning to end, heading through the emotions from peace to bombast and never sounding jarring no matter where the instrumentation or jagged melodies go - a word for the self-production placing it squarely in its own locale and time. Butler's voice is an unusually, at least by the standards of the current North American alt scene, passionate one, tremulous in a way that seems to have been at the centre of the early Flaming Lips comparisons but stronger and more powerful and adaptable than Wayne Coyne's, while Chassange takes the Bjork comparisons on board but without the offputting 'kooky' aspects, her use in small doses perhaps their cleverest move. Funeral is driven by feelings as much as the song layers within without ever slipping into cloyingness, surely due in no small part to the writing and recording process being enveloped in much talked about personal loss, evoking a range of emotions from mourning and sadness through understanding to an acceptance that events might have been taken away from the narrator. It also seems the narrative grows up as the album progresses, from the almost naive invocation of "parent's bedrooms" and "the names we used to know" on Tunnels to the heartbreaking couplet at the end "Alice died in the night/I've been learning to drive my whole life". The fact that of the early comparisons - the aforementioned Flaming Lips, Talking Heads, Bowie, Pixies, Neutral Milk Hotel - you can hear elements but none really ring true in the overall scheme of things proves that this transcends any attempt to place it in a legible context of North America's post-emo dramatic scene-ette. You know, just like proper great albums.
Here's something. For all the hype, it's still largely being discovered fresh by word of mouth, overhearing a track or two on the radio or that BBC autumn drama trailer, or just fans writing fevered write-ups not dissimilar to this one rather than by being pushed down the throats of potential consumers. 74 reviews on Amazon.co.uk have given it a surely unprecedented for that weight of opinion 4.8 out of 5 rating - it's an album its fans really want to tell people about once they get it. There was a new Mercury Rev album out at the start of 2005. You might be forgiven for having missed or forgotten it, such was the air of "uh... right" about it in this era of ultra-fast movement. It's not so long since people talked about Deserter's Songs in much the same way, so complete and emotionally charged a package was it, but that never achieved the positivity right across the board, where even U2 can take them on and not make them guilty by association. It'd be a shame if in five years time an Arcade Fire album was just allowed to slip by in the same way as The Secret Migration largely has with the music press. They say the end of a life is merely a detour in the cycle of life. Here is marked out an exciting talent with an album that will by rights be remembered and talked about for years.
LISTEN IN: Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)
EXTRA FEATURE: The development from local interest to international acclaim: Stylus review the EP in 2003, Tiny Mix Tapes chat to Win at the start of 2004 and he talks about new song Rebellion, Said The Gramophone and Jeremy Brendan - My Life As A Reptile attest for their live reputation at about the same time, Said The Gramophone catch up with them again a few months later, then advance copies of the album arrive with Exclaim, Teaching The Indie Kids To Dance Again and Stereogum.
A reminder of the full countdown