Arcade Fire Step Off Their Pedestal for 'WE'
Published May 04, 2022It's no coincidence the set for their 2017 tour was a wrestling ring: Arcade Fire had done a heel turn. Since quickly becoming one of the biggest faces of the early '00s indie rock boom — a recent book on Canada's contributions to that era features a photo of the band's Régine Chassagne on the cover — their open-hearted, community-minded approach to music-making (not to mention transportive folk rock sound) had led to an untouchable trio of early records. At their best, Arcade Fire hone in on the particular facets of life that tend to speed by and imbue them with as much pathetic fallacy as possible.
But as they entered their second decade, the focus moved from trying to hold on to youth to trying to save the world from itself, largely manifesting as album-sized campaigns against capitalist excess and technological reliance. Positioning their music as a salve felt like putting a bandage on a fissure. The group of misfits that had been hailed as indie rock saviours started to believe their own hype, positing themselves as prophets for an increasingly uncertain populace under the guise of throwing one's phone away and smugly dismissing those who don't as unworthy of salvation. It crystallized on 2017's Everything Now, now seen as the band's first widespread critical miss. The band's obnoxious rollout cycle weaponized the click-hungry press with daily headlines on everything from fictional cereal ads to Jenner sister T-shirts to fidget spinners (remember those?), almost as if to be a scapegoat for the resulting negative reviews and distract from the album's simplistic and uninspired synthpop sketches.
Five years later, they've stepped off their pedestal for WE, their sixth album, which puts them back in the crowd for a sequence of suites that take a more understanding and vulnerable approach to the generally panicked, fractured and violent state of the world. Two-part opener "Age of Anxiety" is, for the most part, more nuanced and thoughtful than its on-the-nose title suggests. "It's the age of doubt / And I doubt we'll figure it out," sings a particularly affected-sounding Win Butler. "The pills do nothing for me," he says, and it sounds like he's been trying. After two albums of abstract, increasingly condescending musings on how technology has turned us into zombies, what could have easily been a bare-minimum mea culpa is elevated by a skeletal, teasing keys-and-guitar arrangement, sounding like a folksier version of the Killers' recent flirtations with heartland rock before breaking into pulsing house production, delivering on the album's promise of bringing people back together with a bit of compositional inspiration for good measure.
WE is non-judgmental, earnest and hopeful. In their grappling with the realities of a permanently overworked and overwhelmed world, the band eschew the ironies of excess for a lean, digestible clarity. Its tracklist, rife with multi-part suites and seamless transitions (the physical version's seven tracks are unnecessarily split into 10 for the digital release), is largely misleading — the album maintains a measured, steady pace throughout, and links are more thematic (like Funeral's "Neighbourhood" quartet) than musical (like how Everything Now repeated songs to prove some point or other about "Infinite Content"). Lengthier numbers shift and evolve, but the album often stays focused on gentle folk rock and grooving dance-pop, transitioning between them smoothly and deliberately.
There's nothing on WE the band haven't already done before, but it's synthesized in a way that seems calibrated for this particular moment, ebbing and flowing between grimly accepting our terrifying reality and embracing the silliness of hope at a time like this. "Unconditional I (Lookout Kid)" might be fairly standard campfire folk, but it's got some of the album's best lyrics that reflect today's climate: "A lifetime of skinned knees / And heartbreak comes so easy / But a life without pain would be boring." Butler and Chassagne, now parents to a nine-year-old, assume the role of wizened veterans with ease in a manner that feels more earned than on previous releases, which came off like parents reprimanding their children by taking away their electronics. "Unconditional II (Race and Religion)" and the back half of "Age of Anxiety I" offer no-frills dance-pop that will undoubtedly ignite live audiences, led by Chassagne's ethereal vocals, while "The Lightning II," the album's sole rock track, is as anthemic as their best.
Weaker moments fall victim to the band's occasional predisposition to cleverness for cleverness's sake, to needless appeals to intelligence rather than emotion. "Age of Anxiety II (Rabbit Hole)" in particular suffers from this — it structurally mirrors its predecessor, to diminishing effect, further buried by lyrics like "Hardy har har / Chinese throwing star / Lamborghini Countach / Maserati sports car," which comes off as a particularly cursed Collected Searching post. Nine-minute "End of the Empire" imagines a post-apocalyptic US — partially war-torn, partially submerged — to the sound of Beatles pastiche before succumbing to escapism with suite-closer "Sagittarius A*," named after a supermassive black hole. It starts with Butler melodramatically declaring "I unsubscribe" (if only it were so easy), and veers into bombast that somehow ties together the Divine Comedy, algorithms, influencers and pharmaceuticals (and the prospect of naming a child Sagittarius A* — don't let Grimes and Elon hear this one!). Though there is a fun moment where they shout out "Fuck season five!," which I am choosing to interpret as an Everything Now reference and not some commentary on how people will inevitably turn on any pop culture property, motivated solely on boredom and the compulsion for novelty or whatever. (In this essay, I will...)
Nothing here quite scratches the itch of both emotional catharsis and rapturous splendour the way Arcade Fire's best songs do, but after a few initial attempts at capturing our collective panic and frustration, they have finally managed to pull it off by seeing themselves as part of the problem, by putting themselves in the line of fire, and by sharing the coping strategies and counterarguments that get them through and putting them into song. That's what Arcade Fire have been about since the very beginning, and it's a relief that they've remembered to do that once again. (Columbia)