Music Reviews

Arcade Fire WE

(Columbia Records) Rating - 6/10

Every good story needs a redemption arc. For Arcade Fire, that time is now. Regardless of what you think of Everything Now (though this reviewer thinks his score was far too generous), it’s undeniably the band’s most polarizing record, one stymied by an overwrought marketing campaign with Win Butler and co wagging their fingers at us for our role in a capitalist, distracted society. Preaching to your fans is among the quickest ways to turn them off. The band seems to have realized the same. WE, their sixth album, is still concerned with our chaotic era but makes clear that we’re all in this together. If their last record was an accusatory “you,” then WE is a much-needed course correction. But while the album is a definite improvement, it’s a mix of hits and notable misses. 

Let’s start with the good. The first singles, The Lightning I, II will go down in Arcade Fire’s catalog as all-timers. Opening with a swell of strings and piano, the song kicks in with a steadily-paced acoustic guitar full of tension and spirit. “We can make it if you don't quit on me,” Butler sings in the chorus, looking for something to hold onto through this time of upheaval. As his voice is joined by Régine Chassagne’s, the drums pick up and track launches into outer space at lightspeed—the band playing with that unstoppable electric release that made Arcade Fire one of the best groups in the world. You’ll want to jump around, run, and scream along all at once with the biggest smile on your face.

Despite that song’s initial impression, this isn’t a back-to-basics record ala U2's All That You Can’t Leave Behind. For instance, Age of Anxiety I arrives with a lovely piano melody, guitar chords, and electronic percussion before shifting into an ascendent gear with a New Order-style pulse and a sparkling synth line that blends into their tried-and-true sweeping strings. It’s an evolution that brings back some classic Arcade Fire sounds but doesn’t retreat from their dance vibes. Most importantly, their compassion and joy in humanity despite our collective flaws return at full force. Unconditional I (Lookout Kid) is a heartfelt campfire ode to Butler and Chassagne’s son. “Things will break, you make mistakes/You lose your friends, again and again/'Cause nothing is ever perfect/No one's perfect/Lеt me say it again: no one's perfеct,” Butler sings passionately, a beautiful sentiment of understanding. 

Both of those tracks’ sequels have strong moments but notable blemishes. Age of Anxiety II (Rabbit Hole) is great musically, an electronic throb that belongs to the arena as much as it does to the club. Chassagne’s rising and falling vocal melody is an undeniable earworm. Sadly, though, Butler’s lyrics are terrible. The chorus finds him repeating, “Rabbit hole/Plastic soul,” like that’s supposed to be deep. Other clunkers like “Hardy har-har/Chinese throwing star” and “Born into the abyss/New phone, who’s this?” will have you roll your eyes so hard that the centrifugal force might slam you into a wall. Unconditional II (Race and Religion) is a decent showcase for Chassagne. Still, the chorus of her singing, “I'll be your race and religion,” plays weirdly and never quite connects. The song is also very, very reminiscent of Reflektor, complete with an appearance by a 70s icon—in this case, Peter Gabriel.

The worst part of WE is the absolute dirge of End of the Empire—all four parts. It’s an overly self-serious meditation that has practically no lift or moments of release. End of the Empire I-III reads like it should be a series of movements. Don’t expect a prog-rock style saga. All it does is move from a sad piano to a slightly louder bar ballad, then adding in some syrupy movie strings. End of the Empire IV (Sagittarius A*) is even duller, with Butler solemnly singing “I unsubscribe” and touches of mournful saxophone. It’s the band trapped under their pretension but without bombast. If you’re going to name a song End of the Empire, go nuts! Go over the top! But they don’t. Instead, it brings proceedings to an interminable halt. The understated closing title track is much more effective in much less time. 

WE displays an alternate path to where the band could have gone immediately after Reflektor. It takes that album’s sense of adventure, experimentation, dance influences, and catharsis, and expands on it while also mining their classic sound. There’s lots to love but WE can’t match the power of the band’s first four records. Still, Arcade Fire’s returned rejuvenated after time in a cynical wilderness, ready to sing and dance against apathy. This album is worth it for that fact alone.