Neon Bible is my favorite Arcade Fire album, but I think Funeral, their first, most elemental album, the one that launched them into the world, is still their best. I just don’t—can’t, really—listen to it anymore. Funeral might be one of the last albums I listened to on an actual CD, the last time I thought of an album as an object, rather than sound waves that just existed in the ether. A friend in high school had burned it for me, personalizing it with her handwriting and doodles on the silver disc, but it took some time for me to snap it out of its sleeve and hunker down with it. Who knows what finally causes something to spark?
This was in 2007, a little over two years after Funeral had been released. I was a freshman in college and very unhappy, though I didn’t know why. Sadness is not very interesting to write about, and even less interesting to experience. But whatever I was experiencing felt less like sadness than a visitation, a presence which also signified an absence: of feeling, of appetite, of self. It was as if I had been replaced by a stranger. I could feel her inside of me: cold as a fish, unknowable. I was afraid this person was actually who I’d been all along.
The feeling could come at any time. Some days, I was able to get through my classes just fine; I could even manage to feel excited about the roots of words in intro to linguistics, or an essay we were reading in lit crit. Other days I couldn’t concentrate at all—I’d feel, at random it seemed, devastated, as if something had reached into me and knocked all the glasses off the table. When this happened, I’d put my pencil in my mouth, biting down so hard the paint would chip. I did this so I wouldn’t break down crying. Ah. Uh. Oh, my linguistics professor uttered at the whiteboard, demonstrating glottal stops. She wore bright floral blouses, and was the nicest professor I had. To me this signified she was okay, she had made it: Here is an adult, I thought, who is happy. It is possible. I ground the pencil with my teeth. The origin of this feeling, unlike etymology, didn’t seem to exist: it would just descend, like a cloth soaked with chloroform.
At lunch or dinner I’d take two bites of my sandwich and feel full—and not just full, but constantly nauseated, not with sick but with dread. When it got really bad, I’d call my mother at odd times of the day just to hear the sound of her breathing, the sound of her listening even though I didn’t have anything to say. What’s wrong, she’d ask, and I’d have to tell her, I don’t know. She told me to count the days the feeling would last; it would subside a little after a week. But it always came back.
I walked through campus listening to Funeral on repeat. It was winter, and, in my memory, only nighttime. The shadows of the empty trees shifted like kaleidoscopes over the brick walkways, and I watched my own shadow flicker through them. I was young enough that time still felt slow, and though there’s almost nothing I miss about this period in my life, I do miss that. The days dripped by.
Once, I walked so close behind someone that I could read, in the dark, the name hand-stitched on her backpack: ANGIE. She had a name. She seems happy, I thought for no reason—I was always thinking this, desperately, of other people—other than that she was someone who had enough energy and confidence to embroider her name to her objects. But then I thought every stranger held some kind of secret to being alive, one I did not have.
Arcade Fire called their first album Funeral because three of the band members had recently lost loved ones. I had lost no one, except maybe whoever I was. But no one I knew had died. I had not been hurt or traumatized. Everyone I knew was fine. There was no reason for me to feel this way, which made it even worse.
When I was sixteen and in physical therapy to recover from a broken leg, the PT would hook me up to an electric stimulation machine. I’d pulse the muscles in my calf, and, if I flexed them hard enough, the machine would give my leg a small zap. When I was able to shock myself, that’s how I knew the muscles were getting stronger. Similarly, that first year in college, I gave myself little tests: I tried to imagine futures for myself as an adult, from the practical to the fantastical, so I could see if I had the ability to look forward to something: living in a Manhattan loft with my best friends! Writing a book! One day making enough money to buy groceries or clothes without worrying! Renting an art studio in a cottage in the woods! But I felt empty every time I drew one up to inspect. Nothing sparked. That’s what scared me: that I couldn’t even make myself happy in my imagination. I had completely forgotten the sensation. Don’t have any dreams, don’t have any plans, Winn Butler trilled into his microphone, though he sounded more triumphant than scared or confused.
In linguistics, we watched a documentary about dialects and speech patterns in demographics all across America. I remember that day was a better day for me. I could actually watch it, could pay attention and take notes. The documentary opened with different people in different regions reciting Mary had a little lamb, it’s fleece was white as snow.
Hearing the repetition of the phrase was when I first realized—oh—glottal stop—words were, at their most elemental, sounds. I always knew this in some basic way. As a child learning to read, I’d repeat words to myself until they dissolved from sense into pure noise, nonsense: nose nose nose nose nose knows knows knows or even lena lena lena lena lena lena lena lena lena lena—until the meaning of who I was started to disappear beneath the chant, or at least shift away from name, like an animal slithering under a rock to hide from the light—but I had never articulated it to myself.
That words are just sounds is completely obvious, and it’s also not the entire truth—nothing is “just” any one thing; words are also images, signs, interiority, meaning. But in this one part of the truth, we can manipulate or modify the sounds to signify who we are or how we feel; off the page we don’t have to rely on diction or syntax alone. This is what Arcade Fire is so good at doing throughout Funeral, screaming, I’ll guess we’ll just have to adjust, dragging out the adjust and transforming it into a long wail, turning both yearning and regret into song and a call to arms. Making art out of a feeling. I made not have had a source for my sadness but the album gave me a sonic container. It turned the shapeless into shapes, into sound. If not a source, I at least had a bucket.
I could not do this. Even now, I’m failing.
I didn’t call the feeling depression because it never lasted more than two weeks, which, after googling one night, I found were the imposed dimensions of depression. I never felt I had the right to the diction. What does it mean not to have a root or a word for something—some kind of cause to point to? I had only the sound this feeling made as it tumbled its way through my body. When I listen to the organ opening Funeral, with its slow rain of piano falling on top of it, I can hear this sound again. I remember, if not the feeling exactly, the girl who was caught inside it.
I looked forward to going back home for the mid-semester break because I thought it would re-click something in me, adjust all my gears back—after all, it was the same house I’d grown up in; I thought of it as me.
That did not happen. When I went home, it was still my home. I checked everything, all the things I never thought about until I left—the woven carpet in the living room, the cupboards with their little cream knobs, the white patch of chipped paint in the kitchen, the pillows on my bed. But there was now a gap between the house and myself. My house no longer held me. Where was I? I had no language for this disconnect. I’m sure I saw old friends, went to our old haunts and favorite diners, read books, but I don’t remember any of that. I only remember sitting in my old bedroom, listening to Funeral on repeat until it became another house.
I did not yet know that several months later, over the summer, I’d start to feel okay again. I didn’t yet know about Neon Bible, or that I’d start drawing and writing again, or that I’d be able to eat whole meals. I did not know any of this, not only because the rest of my life hadn’t yet happened, but because I thought the feeling was final; that my life was effectively over. I didn’t yet know that feelings lift and part, or that Funeral’s juxtaposition of grief and wonder offered me a pathway toward what life could look like: not only unbearable sadness or unmitigated joy, but a little bit of both, at all times, and in turns.
I still know every word, every chord, every inflection and gasp in Butler and Chassagnes’ voices, even though I haven’t listened to Funeral in over a decade—it makes me too sad. All these songs are now more memory than present experience, so that when I listen to Funeral I’m not getting dressed for work or cooking dinner in my apartment as a thirty-year-old, but walking through a dark campus, imagining a blank future: imagining me, whoever I’d be, now. I can feel this eighteen-year-old breathing on my neck. Which makes me wonder how much I still know of her? Is she just waiting to come back? What would she think of me now?
Yet I don’t want to rid this album of that sadness, the emotional heaviness. I don’t want to infuse it with new memories. Why can’t I stand to forget my most miserable self? Instead, I want to dance with her to “Rebellion (Lies),” sing: here’s the moon, it’s alright, here’s the sun, it’s alright. I want us both to constantly step into the future, together, one beat spilling into the next, whirling around the wide and empty room.