“We can make it, baby,” Win Butler pleads. “Please don’t quit on me/ I won’t quit on you/ Don’t quit on me/ I’ll never quit on you.” Those lyrics feel loaded. So do these: “Thought we reached the mountaintop/ But now we just feel so low.” And these: “Know that we’ve been beaten down and broken/ But now we can touch the fire.” And these: “It’s not up to you/ Some you win, some you lose/ When the lightning comes.”
In a new email message to fans, Butler says “The Lightning I, II” was recorded at “peak COVID,” “in the shadow of the Mexican border wall,” while the 2020 election results rolled in. It was inspired by Haitian immigrants “walking from as far as Brazil for a chance at freedom, only to be met with whips and dogs and officers on horseback” and by “the optimism I see in my child living in paradise ‘beneath a poison sky.’” The song’s video is a reference to “the feeling of the last two years: trying to make grand plans only to have the storms of life force you to improvise.” There’s no doubt the nonstop unrest of recent history fueled this passionate call to perseverance. How could it not have?
But Arcade Fire are not fools. They are well aware that a large percentage of listeners were disappointed by 2017’s confused and despairing Everything Now. They know it has a reputation as their worst album and that its overly clever multimedia promo campaign made more of a lasting impression than any of its songs. So even if “The Lightning I, II” is not explicitly an appeal to frustrated fans, in context, as the lead single from Arcade Fire’s Everything Now follow-up, it is hard not to hear it that way — especially when those words are accompanied by the kind of rousing, expansive arena rock that made them a generation-defining band in the first place.
The pivot back to earnest anthem-slinging is right on schedule. Arcade Fire are almost two decades beyond their debut album. So were U2 when they released All That You Can’t Leave Behind, the crowd-pleasing blockbuster on which they famously “reapplied for the job” of “best band in the world.” (For an elder millennial like myself, these are wild facts to process.) Arcade Fire have always taken inspiration from Bono and company, and more than a few observers compared Everything Now to U2’s own irony-drenched dance experiment Pop. Even aside from the obvious U2 parallels, within Arcade Fire’s own trajectory, the timing is right for a back-to-basics album on which they remind us why we cared so much about them in the first place — hopefully one that leads to a more lasting and vital renaissance than All That You Can’t Leave Behind ultimately delivered.
Will the forthcoming WE be that album? It’s too early to say. A partnership with Radiohead’s longtime producer and unofficial sixth member Nigel Godrich is intriguing, but it could mean any number of things. Consider how vigilantly Radiohead resisted becoming the next U2. Remember that Godrich also produced Pavement’s divisive Terror Twilight and Beck’s depressive Sea Change and an album from Supergrass side project the Hotrats. As a Radiohead diehard, I can’t help but be excited by Godrich’s involvement with WE, but it’s by no means a guarantee that Arcade Fire will emerge from their flop era.
Meanwhile, live footage of new songs “Age Of Anxiety I” and “Age Of Anxiety II (Rabbit Hole)” suggests this band is not at all finished with dance music. The former is a slow-burn rising drama that drops a club beat where you’d expect the rock ‘n’ roll explosion to be. The latter could almost pass for Crystal Castles. Those are the new album’s first two songs. Could it be that the “I” side, which is “about our troubles,” is steeped in electronic beats, while the “WE” side, “about our love for one another,” reclaims the classic Arcade Fire sound?
It’s all still unclear for now. What is clear is that for anyone who longs for a return to the fearlessly huge emotional outpourings Arcade Fire made their name on, “The Lightning I, II” is a hell of an olive branch. A cynic might even call it pandering, but the whole point of the Everything Now backlash was that cynicism and Arcade Fire don’t mix. A multi-part epic with a sweeping scope, a bleeding heart, and abundant shout-along hooks: This is what Arcade Fire do best, and here they’ve done it spectacularly. Those of us who’ve spent years waiting on the lightning officially have reason to be excited. Arcade Fire in the business of hope again, including the hope of another classic Arcade Fire album.