Where its predecessor felt more like a by-product of a publicity campaign rather than its focus, WE is grounded by its songs rather than its schtick, and all the better for it.
Way to read the room, Win Butler. While WE, Arcade Fire’s first album in five years, isn’t far removed thematically from 2017’s ambitious-but-overcooked Everything Now, its economical forty minutes makes the most of its run-time. Where its predecessor felt more like a by-product of a publicity campaign rather than its focus, WE is grounded by its songs rather than its schtick, and all the better for it. Essentially five suites sub-divided into ten movements, WE finds Butler, Régine Chassagne, and their bandmates reconciling with their ambition, their hero-worship, and back catalogue.
From their inception, sweeping, stadium-filling anthems have been in Arcade Fire’s DNA, and they’ve consistently hit their mark. “Wake Up” (2004’s Funeral), “Keep The Car Running” (2007’s Neon Bible), “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains” (2010’s The Suburbs), “Afterlife” (2013’s Reflektor) — even the title track of 2017’s much-maligned Everything Now — all make for an impressive and thunderous live set as evidenced by a set of surprise shows live-streamed shortly after announcing WE. As an album, it’s arguably the band’s most top-to-bottom consistent record to date. This is not to say that every track is a banger, but nor are they all duds. The biggest takeaway from WE is that during their time away since Everything Now Arcade Fire seem to have figured out that playing to your strengths doesn’t have to sound stagnant. The influence of Bowie and Springsteen is still writ large across “End of The Empire I-III” and “End of the Empire IV (Sagittarius A*)” but more so than ever before, Arcade Fire finally feel confident occupying their space. Which feels strange to say of a band that’s won accolades and multiple awards, but their run from Reflektor to Everything Now has been marked with the sense that they were trying to convince themselves that they should be chameleons (like Bowie) or champions of the people (like Springsteen). It was all too much production, too sporadically solid songwriting, and too tongue-in-cheek thematically to land properly. Everything now, indeed.
I can’t help but feel that the less-is-more influence of outside producer Nigel Goderich has given the band some fresh perspective. As anchors, the synthy-pop opening set “Age of Anxiety I” and “Age of Anxiety II (Rabbit Hole)” and the surprisingly muted acoustic closing title track help to ground WE in a cycle of earnestness and honesty. Yes, the album is influenced by and takes its name from a century-old dystopian Russian novel. And no, it’s not free of Butler’s endearingly clunky-trying-to-be-cheeky lyrics, but WE balances all that on the shoulders of some fine songwriting. “The Lightning I”/“The Lightning II” crackles like an instant classic. “Unconditional I (Lookout Kid),” a song sung to Butler and Chassagne’s young son (serving as a stand-in for future generations), is personal, whereas “Unconditional II (Race and Religion)” is political; together, they even out the peaks and lows. What WE brings to the Arcade Fire canon is a tempering of expectation based on past successes and an erasure of any missteps their experimenting may have brought about.
If it were a debut album, critics would be ravenous; if it were a break-up album by a beloved band, there would be open weeping in the streets. As it’s neither, WE exists in this strange yet compelling dimension. To paraphrase a tweet from another legacy act who released new music on the same day as Arcade Fire, the best way to listen to WE for both long-time fans and those too young to be fans from the very beginning: Understand it’s not Funeral, Neon Bible or The Suburbs; Understand that like you, Arcade Fire aren’t the same people or the same band they were five, ten, or fifteen years ago; Listen to one set of tracks, maybe “The Lightning I”/“The Lightning II” (if you haven’t already heard them) or “Age of Anxiety I”/“Age of Anxiety II (Rabbit Hole)”; if that’s enough to whet your appetite, put on your headphone or crank up your speakers and go all-in on WE.
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