Arcade Fire have seen a little of everything in their career. They started as a buzzy indie sensation that took the rock world by storm with 2004’s Funeral. Then they were headlining major festivals in the wake of 2007’s Neon Bible and won the Grammy for Album of the Year for 2010’s The Suburbs.
For 2013’s double LP Reflektor, Arcade Fire recruited former touring partner James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem to produce. They invited more guest musicians into the already famously large band and ratcheted up the influence of the music of Haiti, the home country of co-leader Régine Chassagne, into their sound.
Reflektor seems like an ill-advised attempt to give a band that lived on anthemic rock a dance music makeover nearly a decade later. 2017’s Everything Now doubled down on the dance influence but became the most nondescript album of their career. It didn’t help that frontman Win Butler’s lyrics, which often tend toward social commentary, seemed generally concerned with information overload without getting specific.
Five years later, WE arrives, intentionally or not, as a chance for Arcade Fire to rehabilitate their tarnished image. Conceptually, the record is on solid ground, traveling from despair to contentment over a relatively concise 40 minutes. Veteran producer Nigel Godrich is on hand to make sure that everything sounds crisp and seems committed to helping the band get precisely the sounds they want. WE is often so tantalizingly close to recapturing what made Arcade Fire great in the first place. For every triumph here, though, there’s a misstep. Arcade Fire can’t seem to get out of their own way.
The record begins with “Age of Anxiety I”. A sparse, simple piano riff and chords open the song as Butler sings about living in doubt and anxiety. He mentions using TV as a distraction “in the age where nobody sleeps” and “the pills do nothing for me”. Acoustic guitar strumming and shimmering sounds add to the arrangement. Most intriguing, though, are the wordless exhalations of breath that serve as vocal percussion throughout the track. At the halfway point, the song picks up momentum as drums and 1980s-style synths join in, giving the song a very effective upbeat groove. Chassagne shows up on backing vocals here and there, using her high-pitched voice to excellent effect. It’s a really good track, doing two separate things and doing them both well, and connected by Butler’s strong singing and the oddball vocal percussion.
“Age of Anxiety II (Rabbit Hole)” also starts with simple piano chords, albeit much slower ones. Butler sings “Rabbit hole / Plastic soul”, repeating it while Chassagne adds a breathy “yeah” after every line. It’s immediately very annoying because the vapid couplet is delivered with the self-seriousness of a mantra, and the “yeah” reinforces that it’s unintentionally ridiculous. After a few more repetitions, the beat kicks in, and Arcade Fire spend the next six minutes reminding us that they haven’t quite given up on being a dance-rock band. Unfortunately, they haven’t gotten better at being a dance-rock band, either. The song relies heavily on Butler chanting “Rabbit hole / Plastic soul”, without doing much to make it musically interesting. The rest of the lyrics are either sung quietly or, in the second half of the track, spoken word, so nothing sticks. The exception is when Butler mentions “fall asleep to the television”, making this a concept that extends to multiple tracks. “Age of Anxiety II” immediately saps the goodwill Arcade Fire gained from the album’s opener.
Sadly, WE‘s lengthiest piece, “End of the Empire I-IV”, also contains problems. The song has the feel of an album-ending, evening-ending piano ballad, with a healthy dose of John Lennon‘s “Imagine” thrown in for inspiration. There are oblique lyrical references to climate change (“Where California used to be”, “Where New York used to be”) and a lot of general sadness about things lost. All the while, the track drifts pleasantly through these piano ballad clichés. A bowed string bass shows up here, a little accordion accompaniment there, a lonely saxophone pops in, etc. Butler makes sure he gets in another TV as white noise reference, but this time it’s “I can’t sleep with the television on”. It’s all lyrically vague and appropriately “end of a good party” musically until the band arrives at part IV.
Butler opens this section by mournfully intoning, “I unsubscribe” several times and returns to the phrase repeatedly throughout the movement, including in Chassagne’s backing vocals. Much like “Rabbit hole / Plastic soul”, “I unsubscribe” doesn’t have nearly the impact Butler thinks it does, as it sounds silly. There’s a middle section where the movement picks up a little, but it returns to the “Unsubscribe” section again at the end. There’s an even more embarrassing line where Butler randomly moans, “Fuck season five!”
“End of the Empire” is a mess of a song that collapses under the weight of its own self-seriousness. The song also brought James Murphy back to mind because it resembles LCD Soundsystem’s similarly styled “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down”. In that track, Murphy has very targeted complaints about New York City but recognizes that his criticisms may be invalid. He even has the 2007 version of “I unsubscribe” when he says, “Take me off your mailing list / For those who think that it still exists”, with appropriate sardonicism. Butler could have used a lot more specificity and even just a touch of humor (admittedly a big ask for Arcade Fire) to make these nine minutes an easier listen.
Arcade Fire rebound on the next song (the beginning of side two on the vinyl), “The Lightning I-II”. Echoing piano chords and jangly acoustic guitars indicate Arcade Fire are back in anthemic mode. Butler’s refrain here, “We can make it if you / Don’t quit on me”, shows the band has turned the corner into the positive side of the record. Part I alternately jangles and pounds away in all the right spots. Then it picks up the tempo for Part II, turning into a still-jangly but even more energetic rocker. Butler’s refrain, “A day, a week, a month, a year / Every second brings me here”, works beautifully because the music is so damn upbeat and exciting. It’s probably no coincidence that “The Lightning” most resembles the material from Funeral and is also the best song on WE. It’s not always possible for artists to recapture what made their early stuff work but Arcade Fire manages it here.
Still, there are three songs to go. “Unconditional I (Lookout Kid)” continues Arcade Fire’s hot streak with a bright, Americana-flavored track. The great big chorus is a little wordy, but the underlying music is so catchy that it doesn’t matter that it isn’t a massive vocal hook. “(Lookout Kid)” bounces along in the right places and pushes forward whenever the bouncing gets to be a little much.
“Unconditional II (Race and Religion)” puts Chassagne on lead vocals, always a dodgy prospect. Her high-pitched, thin voice usually works wonderfully, adding color to Butler’s vocals, but often comes off as grating when front and center. It doesn’t help that the song is another dance-rocker, with both squiggly high and low buzzing synths providing the majority of the backing music. The track features the legendary Peter Gabriel on backing vocals, which seems like it should be a musical coup. Unfortunately, Gabriel’s full-bodied voice mainly highlights how thin Chassagne sounds rather than the filling out and complementing her singing.
Finally, the album ends with the title track. “WE” is an acoustic folk ballad and is the only “okay” song on the record. It’s not bad, but it’s also not inspiring. It closes with Butler repeating, “When everything ends / Can we do it again?” This seems more like a request for the listener to start the album over than the declaration of undying love it seems intended as.
WE is such a strange album. When Arcade Fire’s material is working, the earnestness of the lyrics matches the songwriting in a way that boosts the whole package. That happens on “Age of Anxiety I”, “The Lightning I and II”, and “Unconditional I (Lookout Kid)”. Sometimes, though, the lyrics descend into self-parody and the music doesn’t help. “Age of Anxiety II (Rabbit Hole)” and “Unconditional II (Race and Religion)” serve to demonstrate the band’s continued futility with dance music.
Meanwhile, “End of the Empire I-IV” is a grand statement that fails on nearly every level. Somehow, Arcade Fire have created an album that’s one half an exciting return to form and the other a continuation of their worst impulses. Fans of the band’s first decade would be well-advised to pull out the three great tracks here and put them on their playlists rather than continue to listen to the whole thing.