Now this is more like it.
Arcade Fire became the biggest indie rock band of their generation — a band that eventually moved beyond “indie rock” in every capacity — via painfully earnest to-the-rafters bombast. But their last grand statement was an attempt to satirize the emptiness of tech-addled 21st century life via a bleary, cynical art project, one that played against their strengths and cast their corniest, clumsiest tendencies in an unflattering light. What stuck with me most was the ephemera: The campaign surrounding 2017’s Everything Now involved a video with a “skip ad” button that could not be clicked, a Twitter account for a fake corporation that bantered with the band’s official online presence, and even a preemptive parody of this website’s own review of the album at the center of this onslaught. (Sadly, the link now redirects to arcadefire.com; R.I.P. Stereoyum.)
The intentionally obnoxious online promo might have been more fun if Everything Now was as electrifying as Arcade Fire albums can be. But as one of the band’s key influences once wrote, you can’t start a fire without a spark, especially not an Arcade Fire. Everything Now successfully captured the exhaustion and frustration of its moment, but it fell way short on the catharsis. This band has always sounded beaten-down and weary — their first (and best) album was a grief-stricken inferno called Funeral — but traditionally they have channeled heavy feelings into transcendent anthems, the kinds of songs that lift you out of the morass. Instead, they now were wallowing in it, retreating into irony and hit-or-miss experiments. It was like they believed their old rallying cries would play like caricature at the peak of the #resist era but could not figure out what to do instead. In hindsight Everything Now was a noble effort that yielded some fascinating, rewarding material, but it ultimately felt like the sound of Arcade Fire wandering in the desert.
Our collective dread has evolved significantly since then — pervasive social and economic unrest, a disruptive plague, a worsening environmental crisis, wars and rumors of wars, that kind of thing — and if the prospect of a big-hearted and proudly overwrought Arcade Fire epic once seemed trite, it now sounds like a salve to me. Good news for anyone who feels the same: With Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich in tow, the band has responded to this present darkness with an apocalyptic opus that embraces their every grandiose impulse and maybe doubles as a tribute to the love between co-leads Win Butler and Régine Chassagne. WE will probably be a polarizing release because of how completely it swings back toward the maudlin big-tent sweep that has always been Arcade Fire’s lingua franca. It’s an album too dead-set on grandeur to worry about whether it’s cringe or pretentious. And although I cannot blame anyone who scoffs at music like this, I have not loved an Arcade Fire album so dearly since their debut.
Some litmus tests: Does the thought of Butler solemnly declaring, “I unsubscribe” — over piano that evokes “Imagine” and The Sophtware Slump, on a nine-minute multi-movement saga called “End Of The Empire I-IV” that also recalls David Bowie, Bright Eyes, and Queen — make you cackle dismissively or laugh giddily in the knowledge that Arcade Fire are back in their bag? Can you imagine enjoying a string-laden commercial-ready folk-rock shimmy on which Butler howls, “Some people want the rock without the roll/ But we all know there’s no God without soul,” as he does on “Unconditional I (Lookout Kid)” — sort of a campfire singalong about how you can’t always get what you want so you gotta footloose while taking a walk on the wild side? What about the part of the pulsing strobe-lit dance-rock track “Age Of Anxiety II (Rabbit Hole)” where he utters, “Born into the abyss/ New phone who’s this?” Buying into WE requires not just tolerating but relishing these kinds of lines, hearing them not as self-parody but Arcade Fire owning their shtick to the extreme, like Bono, Bowie, and the Boss before them. You have to submit to the idea of a rock band serving up IMAX-scale melodrama with straight faces 22 years into the 21st century. And if you can, wow do I have an album for you.
Loosely inspired by Yevgeny Zamyatin’s century-old dystopian novel of the same name, WE in some ways plays like an overture of Arcade Fire’s career, both in sound and substance. The band remains fixated on its great subject, alienation and resilience in the face of a broken culture; they continue to explore it here via lyrics and music that call back to every album in their catalog at various points, from the bellowing ache of Neon Bible to the electro-organic party music of Reflektor. But despite what lead single “The Lightning I, II” might have implied, this is not an All That You Can’t Leave Behind-style corporate reboot of past glories. If anything, it’s the sound of this band condensing what they do best into its most potent form.
Concision is key to the album’s appeal. Unlike most Arcade Fire albums, WE never has the chance to get bogged down in filler. At 40 minutes (spread over seven or 10 tracks depending on format), this is the group’s shortest album to date. At times it is also their most minimal; separated from their bandmates due to COVID restrictions, Butler and Chassagne composed these songs not knowing whether they’d have to record without drums. “I think because of the way we wrote the record to work on piano and guitar, we really wanted the music to have space,” Butler told the Montreal Gazette. “If things sound good, you don’t want to add as much. There are a lot of songs that are the most spacious and empty-sounding things we’ve done.”
You can hear that space all over the album, especially in the various movements of “End Of The Empire” and the somber, hopeful title track, which serve as finales for their respective sides. (The opening “I” side explores “the fear and loneliness of isolation,” while the concluding “WE” side expresses “the joy and power of reconnection.”) Yet even in its quietest moments, the album feels huge — and it rarely stays quiet for long. Part of the genius of WE is the artful way these songs build and build and build, morphing styles and piling on instruments, as if zooming out from a closeup to reveal vast landscapes. It does not feel like the work of a skeleton crew, and it isn’t; in the end, Butler and Chassagne had a lot of help. Beyond bandmates Richard Reed Parry, Tim Kingsbury, Jeremy Gara, and Will Butler — Win’s brother, who left the band after the album was finished, saying he’d changed and so had the band — contributions from friends and family abound.
Chassagne arranged the strings that soar majestically over these songs with old pal Owen Pallett, and his fellow longtime satellite member Sarah Neufeld is among the many players who bring those parts to life. Brass is mostly handled by members of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, a pillar of Butler and Chassagne’s adopted hometown New Orleans. Pulp’s Steve Mackey, who was part of the Everything Now braintrust, did pre-production work. Portishead’s Geoff Barrow, who co-produced that album’s abrasive highlight “Creature Comfort” with Mackey, handled granular synthesis on “Rabbit Hole.” Two songs feature harp by the Butlers’ mother, Liza Rey. One of them also credits Butler and Chassagne’s nine-year-old son Eddie with “whispers.” Father John Misty, who flew to New Orleans during COVID lockdown to offer creative counsel, allegedly can be heard stomping and breathing on “Age Of Anxiety I.” And the great Peter Gabriel’s voice lends a jolt to the club-ready synth-pop love song “Unconditional II (Race And Religion).”