Arcade Fire: WE (Columbia) | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Arcade Fire



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Arcade Fire have never been cool. In fact, for many wonderful years that was their raison d’etre, each new album of maximalist baroque pop riding that thin line between moving earnestness and outright mawkishness, balanced by an undercurrent of reluctant, aching pessimism. At their best their open-armed orchestral arrangements were sweepingly grandiose in scope while remaining affectingly personal, forever hinging on the lovelorn lyrical interplay of the band’s emotive core: husband and wife Win Butler and Régine Chassagne. In hindsight it seems inevitable that such heavy plays to sentimentality would eventually wear thin, but when it did on the band’s embarrassingly shallow modern satire Everything Now in 2017, the impact was enough to cast their canonisation into question. Had Arcade Fire always been a bit naff? Five years after that colossal misfire, the band are back to deliver a fairly convincing “No.”

If the title of the band’s sixth album, WE, didn’t give the game away, Arcade Fire are back to doing what they do best—rousing the collective spirit with euphoric appeals to the power of community, albeit tempered with some trademark turn-of-the-century cynicism. To call WE a pandemic record would be overly simplistic, concerned as it is with a menagerie of interrelated contemporary issues, but the structure certainly mirrors the trajectory many of us have faced over the past few years; the first half (titled “I”) addressing the strangeness of living through such universal periods of isolation and loneliness, and the latter half (also titled “WE”) tackling the scramble for reconnection and the process of healing as a result. In lesser hands such material might come across as heavy-handed, but Arcade Fire have never so much as flinched in the face of accusation of pretension or melodrama—this is the same band whose press release name dropped Carl Jung, Buddha, and Martin Luther King Jr. in quick succession. What matters most is that the emotions are real.

If the emotions are raw, the melodies are anything but, a series of sumptuously arranged movements (produced by Radiohead mainstay Nigel Godrich) that are as liable to drift into outright singer/songwriter territory as they are to be met with the majestic scope of an orchestra. Composed initially on guitar and piano, WE feels like a step back from the dense complexity of The Suburbs or Neon Bible, even as the same recognizable stylistic motifs recur; a quiet bridge that leads into a moment of sudden rapture, or a chorus that recurs with increased urgency and instrumental layers. The relative space afforded by the quieter, more stripped-back moments of each composition feels suitable for a record designed to reground Arcade Fire in the here and now, providing a much needed personal touch to a band that’s often been at risk of floating away.

These recontextualized callbacks give WE the air of a greatest hits collection. The harder-edged electronic funk of Reflektor is represented well on the album’s fantastic double-punch opener of “Age of Anxiety I” and “Age of Anxiety II (Rabbit Hole),” while the soured satire of The Suburbs looms large throughout, that same cookie-cutter sprawl-induced malaise of the modern suburbanite magnified tenfold in the face of solitary seclusion. But it’s Funeral and Neon Bible, the band’s first two albums, that are called back to most, the soaring strings and operatic tendencies acting as a firm reminder of what catapulted them to international stardom in the first place. Case in point, the album’s first single, “The Lightning I, II,” builds to such a steady crescendo that by the time it’s hitting its relentless stride it can’t help but sweep you along for the ride, caught between the rapid-fire claps and determination of Butler’s straining vocals.

What with WE being somewhat of a walk down memory lane, the spectre of Everything Now-era Arcade Fire still lingers, however. The third passage of the epic “End of the Empire I-IV” centers on Butler’s lamentations as various parties, himself included, “unsubscribe,” a metaphor for disaffection with modern culture and society repeated with such fervour and earnestness that its winking at cultural relevance makes the skin crawl—not least when Butler begins more explicitly referencing—yikes—algorithms. Subtle this is not. Reminder: the various members of Arcade Fire are, for the most part, in their late 30s and early 40s. That’s not to say there’s no room for acts approaching middle age to discuss the changing landscape of technology and media, but lyrically this has a whiff of “Hello, fellow kids” to it—the sort of lazy finger pointing at trends that makes the surrounding material feel hopelessly out of touch. Because do you get it? Because we all click unsubscribe now don’t we? Isn’t that a silly social construct? Arcade Fire have always tackled potentially preachy topics without any apparent fear of coming across as kitsch, but in the age of the internet—where everything is self-reflexive at the point of contact, let alone years after the fact—it’s hard to not find the brash simplicity of the commentary nauseatingly smug.
What differentiates WE from Everything Now is the strength of the surrounding songwriting. If ABBA-esque disco was a strange shoe fit for a band once well-beloved as the patron saints of modern indie rock, by returning to the stylings that defined their first decade together Arcade Fire have made their strongest record since The Suburbs. If that sounds like your idea of bliss, then you’ve likely already listened to this album five times over by the time you’re reading this, but for those of you still on the fence—rest assured there’s plenty to recommend this latest offering. Bound together with a rather intoxicating blend of intimacy, inconsistency, and immediacy, this is the sound of a band coming home. (

Author rating: 7.5/10

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