Fittingly, it was a record called ‘Funeral’ that killed indie rock as we knew it. Fifteen years ago this week, on September 14 2004, it was Arcade Fire wot did it, in Urban Outfitters, with the accordion.
Changed or killed? Truth is, indie barely made it out of Britpop in one piece. When it emerged from the 90s, like a shellshocked war vet, it barely knew what it was anymore. An ethos? A sound? None of the era’s major players – Blur, Pulp, Oasis – could provide an answer. Come the millennium, garage rock – The Strokes, The White Stripes and so on – gave it a bump and bought it a second-hand leather jacket.
Then a band from Montreal, Canada, released their debut album. They had a singer, in Win Butler, who looked like he’d just walked off the canvas of a haunted gothic painting. His wife, Regine Chassagne, was in the band. His younger brother Will too. Loads of their mates. During recording, an alarming number of the band’s grandparents died – including Win and Will’s grandfather, jazz legend Alvino Rey – hence the album title. And yet for a record principally concerned with death, it couldn’t have sounded more alive.
The record entered a world no longer on fire, but dolefully combing the ashes for sense and reason. Inquests were in vogue. Into the suspicious death of weapons inspector Dr. David Kelly the previous July. Into whether Iraq had possessed the weapons of mass destruction that would have justified the allied forces’ invasion in March of the same year. Into al Qaeda’s role in the 9/11 attacks a few years earlier. In March that very organisation took the lives of 191 in the Madrid bombings. In April, photos emerged of US soldiers abusing Iraqi solders in Abu Ghraib prison. In October, the British civil engineer Ken Bigley was beheaded by Islamic militants and the footage was posted on the internet. The 18 years since the towers fell have featured many that are significant in signposting to the daily dread of 2019. 2004 is one of them.
‘Funeral’ is a record that provided a soundtrack to a generation who wanted to feel something but didn’t know what, and barely remembered how. “Something filled up,” went the big song ‘Wake Up’, “my heart with nothing”. Little made sense now. We’d been living to a faded rulebook for five strange years. If two aeroplanes could incinerate a New York picture postcard, what other horrors might unfold? If 2,977 people could lose their lives simply for going to work, what was the point in me running for the bus? What was the point of planning a future when I might not be here tomorrow? When my friends might not? When my family… What was the point of staying up all night making placards that read “no war”, marching, shouting until your throat was raw, only for the bombs still to fall? “They say a watched pot won’t ever boil,” muses the singer on ‘7 Kettles’, with perhaps a view to the wells of black gold bubbling in the Middle East. “You can’t raise a baby on motor oil”.
And yet the record swelled and soared, whispered and roared; it said nothing direct about the war but everything about 2004. “Purify the colours!” roared the man from the haunted painting on the album’s opener ‘Tunnels’, “purify my mind!” God knows what any of it meant, but the way he sang it sounded like it meant something. That would do for now. Like a teeterboard weighted by angst and hope, the record veered between the two, often several times within the same song. Then came a song, ‘Laika’, that appeared to be about sending a dog to space to die. These were, as we say, the strangest times. But then there was a song called ‘Power Out’. It sounded like New Order playing a Joy Division song. When the man sang, “don’t have any dreams, don’t have any plans, I went out into the night, I went out to find some light” it sounded like he was singing to all of us. We were all trying to find purpose back then.
The band managed to squeeze five singles out of ‘Funeral’, by then a Grammy nominated album. Platinum in the UK and Canada, gold in the United States. The last was ‘Wake Up’. It was the best song they’d written then, and perhaps even now. It changed everything. Opened doors indie bands were rarely allowed through. The following year the band would perform the song live with David Bowie at a Fashion Rocks gig in New York. Coldplay’s live show – once snively and insular, now clearly indebted to the Montreal band’s live act with the dials for euphoria turned up to 11 – would never be the same again. Then, like a fly to shit, came Bono. He’s always there, is Bono. You can set your watch by him. Ringing the cool magazine’s ‘Ones To Watch List’ in marker pen, lying in wait, sharpening his fangs, ready to pounce, to drag the latest big thing off to his Dublin dungeon, to drain them of blood. In the case of the Arcade Fire, he made do with using ‘Wake Up’ as the walk-up music on U2’s colossal Vertigo Tour in 2005.
Seemingly overnight everyone owned an Arcade Fire tote bag. Otherwise rational people started openly praising the merits of kale. The film Garden State was released and Natalie Portman, like Bambi dressed at American Apparel, really wanted you to check out The Shins. “You’ve got to hear this one song, it’ll change your life, I swear…” Young people started wearing knitwear. The music website Pitchfork, which had become a bastion for all things earnest and perceived real, could make or break a band with a single decimal place. ‘Funeral’ got 9.7. That same year, the US punk rock band Rise Against released an album called ‘Siren Song of the Counter Culture’. On it was a song called ‘The First Drop’. It featured the lyric “this system of power and privilege is about to come to an end”. Pitchfork awarded said album 2.9. Nobody wanted to fight in 2004. They just wanted a flat white.
Don’t hate the playa, hate the game, and ‘Funeral’ isn’t guilty of anything but association with some strange times. It came when we needed something of sustenance, and it delivered in spades. Its legacy is giving meaning where there once was little. Emotion when the well had run dry. It is the greatest album of the moral, ethical, spiritual conundrum that was the 00s, if you give a ‘Kid A’ and take an Arctic Monkey. Thanks to said record, for the following 10 years, every advertising executive at every tech company on the planet would commission their campaign with a request to “find me something like Arcade Fire…” It rendered the term indie rock useless. Something that played beneath the whir of Starbucks coffee machines. You might argue we’re still looking for what’s next.
But it also reminded us that we were alive, when most days it had started to feel that we’d ceased to be so. Every cloud…