What makes a perfect summer album? You could argue it has to be something beautiful, or maybe something uplifting, or perhaps just something fun? Maybe it’s all of these things. If you asked me – which you didn’t – I’d say all of these things certainly help, but the factor that rises above them all, is timing.
Of course, in the mainstream music scene, timing is mostly a matter of when you choose to release your album or track. Do it well, and you’ve got yourself a bona fide sound of the summer – see Daft Punk’s Get Lucky for further research. But the kind of timing I’m talking about here is a tad more personal; less about when the artist chooses to release their music, and more about when the listener happens to pick it up.
I happened to pick up Arcade Fire’s Funeral at the end of my college years, back in 2012. It was only four years ago, but I can’t remember much of that summer. I can remember how it felt though – there was a wonderful, paradoxically innocent hedonism to the whole thing. I’d not long turned 18, my mates were all going separate ways, and I was starting university in September. It felt like we could do – and had to do – anything and everything, and we needed to do it fast. Any album that was going to stick for me in that time was going to have to capture that spirit. It was going to have to feel celebratory and galvanising, reflective and optimistic.
Everything that was important about Funeral for me was instrumental. Since I’ve been writing about music at university, I’ve paid more and more attention to the things artists say, how it links back to their music. I’ve begun chewing my music before I digest it. You could say that I’ve become a more refined, considered reviewer in my old age. But before that most of my taste was established on gut reactions to a tune. And in Summer 2012 this was fine. Summer 2012 was all about gut reactions.
I can’t remember exactly how or why I stumbled across Funeral when I did. For those of you who don’t know, it’s the debut album of Canadian band Arcade Fire, released back in 2004. I came to know these guys after some friends turned me onto The Suburbs – another great album, which I’ll save for a later column – not long after it’s release in 2010. I think at that time I may have absent mindedly downloaded Funeral, leaving it to gather metaphorical dust in my iTunes library for a couple of years. Whilst the specifics elude me, I guess at some point around June 2012 I must have been embarked on a sort of digital spring clean, when I rediscovered this neglected album.
You know that bit in the old Wizard of Oz movie, where Dorothy steps out of her front door and everything turns to colour? As cloying as it may sound, that’s how it felt when I first heard the piano riff to Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels) – the album’s opening track. It was an entirely gut reaction, but it captured that moment of my life perfectly – I was probably the happiest I’d ever been, and this whole world of beautiful colours was unfurling in front of me.
The funny thing is, when I was revisiting this track for the purpose of this column entry I had a proper look at the lyrics. In the song, the protagonist meets with his girlfriend in secret and, in a rush of pubescent naivety, plots their future together as adults. It’s almost as if there was an intended symmetry to the whole thing. Who’d have thought it?
Much like Dorothy’s adventures in Oz, despite the colourful initiation this album isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. There’s a very deliberate pacing to its slower moments, which – whilst rarely lingering for long – provide a space for reflection among the rousing celebration. In this sense, Funeral poignantly mirrors and befits it’s title, and by the same token served as a fitting backdrop for my transition from college to university. I was simultaneously revelling in all the stuff that was lying ahead of me, and reflecting on everything I was leaving behind.
This is a great record, regardless of the time of year in which you choose to listen to it – music like this always is. But in 2012, Funeral managed to musically articulate the emotional crossroads at which I found myself better than I ever could with my own words. If I hadn’t picked it up when I had, then it would just be another great record. Instead – for me at least – it will always serve as a touching example of exactly what makes the perfect summer album.