WE is bookended by anxiety and positivity, a journey through isolation, claustrophobia, euphoria and landing on hope.
With Arcade Fire’s first four albums - Funeral (2004), Neon Bible (2007), The Suburbs (2010) and Reflektor (2013) - becoming favourites in the indie world for their unique take on baroque pop and dance-rock, it’s not a stretch to suggest they already go down one of music’s greatest and most interesting rock ‘n’ roll bands.
However, to many (myself included) their fifth album Everything Now (2017) was a rare misstep and, as a result, the five year wait for their sixth studio album has felt unbearable. Most bands with their volume of work are allowed at least one mediocre effort so we forgive them on that front, but we’ve had to wait longer than usual to see how they'd recover from their 2017 setback.
In October 2020, frontman Win Butler revealed to Rick Rubin on the Broken Record podcast that the Canadian-formed band had written “two or three” new album’s worth of material and were about to gather in Texas to record. A month later they would perform ‘Generation A’ on Stephen Colbert’s Election Night 2020 Special. The political track felt like a return to the band of old and excitement went through the roof in anticipation for incoming new music. As we held our breaths for the band to tease us with a new single, instead we were met with disappointing radio silence. It was time for those who had kept the car running to turn the engine off and play the waiting game as the effects of coronavirus meant delay after delay after annoying delay!
18 months later and finally we had to wait no longer. In March, when two-part singles ‘The Lightning I’ and ‘The Lightning II’ landed, the Arcade Fire fan base collectively hit play with overwhelming apprehension, eager to see if they could better their underwhelming disco-infused previous effort Everything Now (2017). Thankfully, it was to be the perfect return and a reminder of why we all fell in love with them in the first place.
The first part, which hits us halfway into WE, begin by bringing together pianos, synths, acoustic guitars and the perfect Win/Regine vocal combination for a blissful three-minute experience. “We can make it if you don't quit on me / I won't quit on you / Don't quit on me” croons Win and it felt especially relevant to the collective frustration at their longer than usual album gap. As we started to get that warm and fuzzy feeling inside, the second part of the song rolls into play with breakneck, euphoric speed (echoes of Springsteen’s ‘Born To Run’, anyone?). “I was trying to run away but a voice told me to stay” admits Win, the thunder leading him to “put the feeling in a song”. Despite the warmth and euphoric sound, the darkness in the lyricism provided an added edge and depth.
Said to be named after a totalitarian, dystopian 1924 Russian novel, WE is produced by Win Butler, Regine Chassagne and long term Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich. The final result is a return to form from a band many had written off following 2017’s disappointing Everything Now. The nine tracks (plus ‘Prelude’), rarely outstay their welcome, eight of which are split into two parts.
Opener ‘Age of Anxiety I’ is a beautifully uneasy start. Over short breaths, a haunting piano and synths, Win explores the impact of social media and technology on rising isolation and depression (“fight the fever with TV / in the age where nobody sleeps / and the pills do nothing for me / in the age of anxiety”). The theme is continued on the second part of the song ‘Age of Anxiety II (Rabbit Hole)’, the swirling synths and futuristic dancefloor vibes again creating a desired claustrophobia and feeling of discomfort around the state of the world.
After an intriguing start, the album continues into ‘End of the Empire I-III’ and ‘End of the Empire IV (Sagittarius A*)’, the latter of which unfortunately outstays its welcome. The first of the two tracks has Win “standing at the end of the American Empire” and commenting on the fake desires of the American Dream, the orchestrations adding much drama and flavour. By the second song (or the fourth part…), Win and Regine ask to “unsubscribe” to this way of life (“This ain't no way of life / I don't believe the hype”). However, by the time the frontman is proclaiming “f*** season five” (a disassociation from their fifth album, perhaps?) they’ve laboured the point too far and there’s a desire to unsubscribe from the track itself. Thankfully, any feeling of mid-album malaise is worn off by the following euphoria of ‘The Lightning I’ and ‘The Lightning II’.
‘Unconditional I’ changes the pace again for an uplifting and chanty (“Do-do-do-do, do-do-do-do”) folk song written for Win and Regine’s son. It’s a reminder that things often get worse before they get better in life (“Things will break, you make mistakes / You lose your friends, again and again / 'Cause nothing is ever perfect”). It’s hard not to be swept in the fallable inspiration that the track offers. “Lookout Kid is a reminder, a lullaby for the end times, sung to my son, but for everyone…” Win would later say of the track to Apple Music, “…trust your heart, trust your mind, trust your body, trust your soul.”
‘Unconditional II (Race and Religion)’ meanwhile has Regine fronting vocal duties for a delicious synth-pop track full of charm and unity. It’s no surprise many have already been quick to label it their favourite of WE. Regine fronted tracks are in the minority when it comes to Arcade Fire’s discography, but, be ‘Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)’ from The Suburbs (2010) or Funeral's ‘Haiti’ and ‘In the Backseat’ (2004), these are often amongst the warmest and most interesting on any given album. She doesn’t fail to deliver given the opportunity here!
Reinforcing the lightened palette the band have moved towards over the second half of the record, the folky self-titled final track provides a gorgeous nod to Big Thief’s 2019 single ‘Cattails’. The stripped-back song is the perfect curtain closer, the anxiety and isolation gradually simmering down to be replaced by hopeful colour.
WE is bookended by anxiety and positivity, a journey through isolation, claustrophobia, euphoria and landing on hope. It may have taken them five years to deliver, but it was definitely worth the wait. On ‘The Lightning II’ Regine and Win sing that they’re “waiting on the lightning” and what is clear over this 40 minute listen is that Arcade Fire are back with explosive thunder. It’s their most focused album in almost a decade. An excellent return to allow us to forgive their 2017 misstep.