Arcade Fire – WE
Indie Rock | Art Rock | Synth Pop
I feel it’s important for this review to begin with a disclaimer that I’m not approaching this album from the same perspective as the vast majority of my peers. The overwhelming consensus is that 2017’s Everything Now was a major misstep from a band who have otherwise delivered one classic after another. Critical scorn usually softens over time as listeners revisit and reassess, but in this instance it only got more deeply entrenched and slipped further into hyperbole. It went so far that critics and fans alike began lamenting that Arcade Fire would never recover as a band, and that their lauded back catalogue was tainted by association. For most listeners the band’s follow-up WE is a make-or-break moment for them to mount a triumphant comeback.
Bollocks. Everything Now wasn’t half as bad as it was made out to be (I don’t even think it’s their worst album, but that’s a hornet’s nest for another day). Sure, the promotional campaign was overblown and irritating, and the tracks in its centre were genuinely terrible at times, but bookending that record was some of the band’s most fun material to date. With that in mind, I can’t structure my review of WE around the idea of it being some major leap forward. WE does improve on its predecessor in a few key ways; it’s a far more consistent outing for the band, perhaps their most consistent, and besides the cringey calls to “unsubscribe” on ‘End of the Empire IV’ it explores a lot of the same themes of consumerism and modern society with more tact and subtlety. But at the same time, this album doesn’t have the same explosion of technicolour as EN, no glittery arena-ready anthems. Nor does it have the full-hearted chaos of Funeral, or the daunting yet familiar sprawl of The Suburbs. Those things are still present, they’re deeply woven into Arcade Fire’s DNA, but they’re floating in the periphery.
Though this is the band’s shortest album, I think it’s also the one which is most worthy of your time. It doesn’t dazzle you out of the gates with glitterballs, it doesn’t roar out to the heavens, instead for the most part it’s an album packed with slow burners where half of the charm is in witnessing how they unravel. The soft pulsing beat and expressive piano that opens ‘Age of Anxiety I’ draws in the empty space around it to be part of the song, and gradually fills the silence with whispered voices like the constant chatter of modern life, saying everything and nothing, that we try so hard to block out. The pulse deepens, a quickened heartbeat, as the synths begin to loom like walls closing in on “Another lost soul just trying to feel something” in a superb piece of musical storytelling. It’s a narrative that continues and develops into ‘Anxiety II (Rabbit Hole)’ as the electronic New Order-esque beat soundtracks a constant stream of consumerist escapism, with a shot of endorphins waiting at the end with Regine’s sweet melodic refrain of “Nothing ever can replace it, When it’s gone you can still taste it, Going on this trip together, Rabbit hole goes on forever“.
On WE, Arcade Fire find the courage to embrace their quieter side. The album’s multi-part centrepiece ‘End of the Empire’ has a quiet elegance to it akin to Father John Misty. But while that kind of soft reflective tone lends a much needed air of sincerity to talk about the destructive spiral of the American Dream, it serves a greater purpose in the album’s more personal moments. In the encouraging indie folk love letter to Win and Regine’s son ‘Unconditional I (Lookout Kid)’, and the stripped back title track’s preaching that the highs of life are worth the lows, the band exhibit a level of earnestness not seen for many years.
Of course, a reserved and introspective album by Arcade Fire standards is still bound to be a sumptuous spectacle by any other measure. ‘Unconditional II (Race and Religion)’ brings back Reflektor era rhythms and pairs them with hypnotic synths and one of Regine’s best vocal performances to date, while lead single and album highlight ‘The Lightning’ explodes into life in its latter half with its driving bass line and just overall air of ardent and triumphant cacophony. Yet even in these moments of pageantry the earnestness still seeps its way in. WE rarely reaches up to the heights of anthemic glamour that constitutes their biggest hits, but as an album it maintains a high bar of quality that gives their very best records a run for their money. It’s not quite a dramatic comeback, not quite a reinvention, not quite a nostalgic culmination of past sounds – but a stunning record all the same.