Raising the Stakes Higher Than Ever

“It’s an age of doubt/ and I doubt we’ll figure it out,” sings Win Butler on the first line of “Age of Anxiety I,” the opening track of Arcade Fire’s sixth studio album, WE (out Friday, May 6th). From the very start, things are bleak and contradictory; the song essentially describes a full-on panic attack, even though the music beneath it is synth-covered, electrifying dance-rock, and as the track comes to a close, Butler trades repetitions of the phrases “It’s all about you” and “It’s not about you.”

The latter contradiction is a crucial one in the context of WE: There is a deep consideration from the band about the all-or-nothing cultural mentality that we find ourselves in in 2022, and the separation of “I” and “We” is what makes up the core of the album. The first half of WE precisely reflects the selfish, anxiety-ridden habits of modern life, our self-destructive tendencies that lead to dissociation, apathy, and anguish; the latter half, then, is entirely liberating — it focuses on unity, the power of the collective, family, and offers a beacon of hope.

If these concepts feel weighty and a little too big, then it must be an Arcade Fire album. From the outset, with their landmark debut, Funeral, nearly 18 years ago, Arcade Fire have been operating with Capital Letters, seeking to reflect the biggest emotions with passion and poise. Throughout their storied career, you could argue that they’ve successfully merged an arena-sized fervor with an acute, art rock sensibility, and this strategy has arguably only failed them once — 2017’s Everything Now.

But a lot can change in five years: Everything Now investigated our culture of excess and capitalism in the Trump era with a tongue-in-cheek quality, but the majority of its songs ended up being forgettable and, at times, hollow. WE, on the other hand, investigates many of the same fraught ideological concepts, but with the honesty and grandeur that characterized the band’s biggest albums to date, and with stakes that have never been higher.

The urgency on WE is palpable. The first half contains many of the same cynical, zeitgeist-y observations seen on Everything Now and 2013’s Reflektor, but rather than strictly point the finger at the audience in judgement with a wink and a nudge, Butler and co. essentially perform a version of mental collapse in the social media age, scattered and effervescent and agitated all at once. “Age of Anxiety II (Rabbit Hole)” picks up where “Age of Anxiety I” left off, but doubles down on the electro punk aesthetic, offering several cathartic moments of dance rock amidst lyrics about falling deeper and deeper into the depths of digital content. The disco romp of both “Age of Anxiety” numbers is clearly in Arcade Fire’s back pocket, but similar to “Reflektor,” they use this energy as a way into an anxious mentality, a frenetic attempt to capture an overloaded mind.

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