He paused and then after a few moments peering at me over the wire rim of his glasses, he resumed.

“Sometimes it’s easier when they die.”

The statement jostled me at first but then quickly settled down towards my center. I understood it even as he began to explain.

“The loss from death is so final. When people leave, there is always uncertainty. The mind can’t help but question. ‘May be they’ll come back. May be we can convince them to come back.’ The finality of death does not allow for this. The transition to acceptance is free from that obstruction.”

It was a new perspective on loss, and yet another in a long list of lessons learned in the past month. But that’s why I was back in therapy. It helps when you better understand what you’re going through, even if that knowledge cannot cure the hurt itself. The pain may linger, but the palpable immediacy is somewhat subdued.

I expect this kind of insight from my therapist but I rarely ever look for it in my indie rock. It is within this context that The Arcade Fire have emerged as a pleasant surprise amidst the most unpleasant of circumstances.

The release of their debut Funeral this past fall was surrounded by a frenzy of storied Wilco-sized circumstances: youth and young lovers; new homes and harsh winters; grave losses and graves gathered in quick succession; intense live shows that seemed to harness and then transcend all this turmoil; and then a blog buzz that burned through all initial pressings upon shipping.

But none of this is much more than merely interesting unless the band delivers. And indeed they do. Their debut boasts both impassioned punch and an innovative yet cohesive amalgamation of current and classic sounds.

Funeral succeeds not just by its emotive impact but also by the broad range of emotional experiences it so eloquently captures. Loss is a central theme, but the record never gives in to the morass of melancholy so often associated with the emotion. Instead, the entire process is considered, with all its inherent anguish, anger, aching, and eventual acceptance.

Even more impressive is that while the album as a whole follows this very transition, individual songs form sub-movements of false-starts, failures, and short-lived successes. The midtempo pensiveness of “Une Annee Sans Lumiere” gives way to defiant drumming and strumming suggesting a desperate sense of joy. This in turn is exposed as mere denial when the song ends by crashing into the raging indignation of “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out).” “Wake Up” alternates between an insistently uplifting chorus and saddened verses before welcoming a wonderment that washes away all preceding pain. It is no less than a five-and-a-half minute epic of sadness, struggle, and redemption.

These deft manipulations of emotional subtlety are driven by inspired arrangements. The complexity of the subject matter and development serve as a counterpoint to the one-sidedness of more-dance-than-punk dance-punk and angsty garage rock posturing yet they all share similar hallmarks of influence. “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” channels the same Tom Waitsy anachronism of The Walkmen before summoning up a Duran Duran vocal chorus over a just-a-bit too fast to be “Blue Monday” beat. “Wake Up” shares 60’s choral pop inspiration with The Polyphonic Spree while retaining the same Talking Heads’ jerkiness that shapes so much of the record’s vocal delivery.

Still, the sound they make is entirely their own. The influences may be easy to spot but they are so thoroughly integrated that no one of them robs the Arcade Fire of their own unique and peerless identity. The only exception is perhaps the tired Bjorkisms of closing track “In the Backseat.”

The flaws in this record are very few, but only one of them prevents the album from attaining a truly classic status. The unfortunate confluence of willfully obtuse lyrical imagery and imperfect production often mean that the words of the songs have little impact. Their strength relies nearly entirely on their delivery. Consequently the songs fail to fully hook themselves into the listener and it becomes too easy to get distracted from some otherwise very compelling music.

As 2004 draws to a close, Funeral is sure to make a number of best-of-the-year lists. Although the record is not entirely perfect, its placement there is surely justified. This is a very good record that suggests an even better one is on the way.

Yet somehow even this seems rooted in the album’s unifying theme of loss. It may not be a flawless effort, but it is as good as it could be given the circumstances surrounding its creation. The band did the best they could with what they had available. And I - as well as the rest of us - must continue to do the same.

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