arcade fire: ‘WE’ album review

Let’s face it, Arcade Fire needed a comeback. After 4 albums building worlds of sound and rhyme to travel through loss, ennui, boredom, and restlessness…

…the maximalist collective’s major label debut, 2017’s Everything Now, can only be described as the embodied nightmare that every aging hipster has about their teenage favorite going mainstream – a gorgeous but hollow display by a band that had mastered its craft to production line perfection.

‘Going on this trip together’

Nothing if not self-aware, Arcade Fire set out to parody themselves in the wake of it, and as a result their live shows, which once carried the energy of a baptist revival, started to suffer under the weight of irony. Playing their 2017 tour from a boxing ring at the center of a thinning arena, Arcade Fire hoped to ascend to new heights as champions, but there was no question from anyone listening that the band was at their lowest, knocked out and alone.

Then came the pandemic, and alone came for every one of us. With our usual haunts – especially the crowded arenas Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler had become accustomed to holding court over – shut down, we had to do the hard, uncomfortable work of living with ourselves. Fortunately for Butler, isolation included more family time at home with his wife and songwriting partner Régine Chessange and their young son. And so WE, Arcade Fire’s first album in almost 5 years, came together organically, with the duo reportedly writing most of the album’s 10 tracks on a piano and acoustic guitar while locked down at home.

The result is an unquestionable return to form for Arcade Fire, one that isn’t afraid to tread the uncomfortable ground of introspection and self-reference in search of connection. The band very publicly dubbed side one of the record the “I” side – focused on self-examination – and side two “WE” – focused on our connections to others – and the music drives the theme home. The racing, synthesized heartbeat that starts off side I’s “Age of Anxiety I” drives headlong into a refrain of “When I look at you I see what you want me to…” in a way that recalls the lonely tech-wariness of “Neon Bible,” but ends floating between whispers of “It’s all about you” and “It’s not about you” as Butler wrestles with the weight of ego suspended in a vacuum of isolation. “Age of Anxiety II (Rabbit Hole)” leaves more space than anyone could have believed possible from the band that wrote Funeral, and ponders the bottomless well of a plastic soul filled with buzzwords, luxury possessions, and blowing on cartridges when you have a partner to lose yourself dancing with.

Arcade Fire leaves plenty of space to think on side I, and departing bandmate and modular synth enthusiast Will Butler leaves on a high note, doing his best work since 2013’s Reflektor with warm analog synths that alternate between the driving thump of a Berlin discotheque and spacious pads that float somewhere out past Major Tom’s spaceship. But even with masterfully laid electronics to set the tone, WE doesn’t stray far from its ‘two musicians in isolation roots’ of acoustic guitar and piano. Side I’s turn towards classic rock ‘n’ roll on “End of the Empire I-III” & ‘IV’ comes off a little less than successful as the elder Butler ponders oceans swallowing California and wars engulfing New York a little less subtly than he did the suburban wars of 2010, but when the harmonic swell of piano, guitar, and violin kick off the album’s lead single “Lightning I/II” and the “WE” side of the album, Arcade Fire leans into every one of the grandiose tendencies that made them a household name, and we’re all left better off for it. 

The album WE crescendos on the heartfelt shuffle of “Unconditional I (Lookout Kid),” which Butler can only have written as a love letter to his son given reports that he broke down crying as the crowd sang the chorus back to him at Coachella, and circles back to the warm, pulsing disco that started Side I on the Chessange led “Unconditional II (Race & Religion).” But this time the atmosphere is brighter, if only to remind us that when we’re lost in the groove we’re never truly alone. The band, and the listener, ends on the album’s eponymous title track, an acoustic ballad on which Butler pleads with us to do it again, the depth of connection discovered through the album having made every bit of anxiety, inelegance, cacophony, and catharsis worth the adventure. The album loops, and the journey begins again.