Arcade Fire‘s Will Butler calls his new album Generations because the songs look back at where his personal and familial heritage connect and how that impacts him living in the present. The multi-instrumentalist creates bouncy, infectious rhythms and covers them with socially responsible, cerebral lyrics about American life past and present. Butler has a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard and has toured town hall meetings on local issues (police contracts, prison reform, municipal paid sick leave, voting rights). He has a long view of the country and his current role in it. The father of three children personalizes the problems, which puts him in a quandary.
The ten songs here all deal with these issues in roughly that order, but various themes are weaved through the album and sometimes go back and forth in time. Besides, many of the songs are more allegorical than literal, and Butler is not afraid to creatively mythologize or go for the dark joke as ways of getting to the truth. He’s an unreliable narrator who confesses his advantages as a shield. “I was born rich / Three-quarters protestant / Connections at Harvard / And a wonderful world,” Butler sings while wondering if God is a douchebag. One can pretend America was once awesome and ignore the fact George Washington had slaves. Their whippings were somehow part of the greater story of good over evil.
Butler knows about white privilege, his position at the top of a class system that has empowered and pampered him, the benefits he enjoys due to the accident of birth. No one chooses one’s parents. It’s easy to sympathize with the victims of the system. Still, Butler righteously asks how responsible is one for the fathers’ and mothers’ sins and how to contextualize the past without demonizing from a present perspective. He’s grateful for what his great, great, great, great, great grandparents had done, but he’s also aware of those who suffered.
“Oh, the past is in a graveyard / Makin’ stew out of the bones,” he opines on “Bethlehem”. So what if, as a Yankee patrician, your ancestors fought for personal freedom but benefited from the genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans so that they and their progeny could enjoy good lives. Butler struggles to find the response as to what is his responsibility. He never does so satisfactorily on Generations, maybe because it’s impossible to answer. As he implies, all one can do is reflect on the past to create present nourishment.
The truth is, no matter how we hide it, America was built on slavery and genocide. The system is rigged. This is not the natural order of things, but a human-made construct that purposely treats people unequally. He wants to do what’s right. His guilt makes it hard for him to breathe, Butler says on “Close My Eyes”. The echoes of black men killed by police here suggest Butler’s awareness of how easy it is to be blind to our nation’s foundational sins and their resonances today. All it takes is “money and power” to make things right, and the will to do so.
The album acknowledges these are “Hard Times”, especially for today’s young generations. Butler cheats a bit by implying that human beings have always experienced adversity. Whatever. For the most part, these are songs you to can dance to while pondering the point of it all and what it means to be a good person in present-day America. My guess is that most people will listen to this album by themselves while wearing headphones. He’s bringing us together by reminding us of our limitations.