Arcade Fire’s ‘We’ Marks the Return of Big Songs, Big Worries
Treat yourself, if you haven’t watched it in a while, to the sight of Arcade Fire’s winning album of the year ahead of Lady Gaga, Eminem, Katy Perry and Lady Antebellum at the 2011 Grammy Awards.
Barbra Streisand was the presenter that night and, obviously unfamiliar with the Canadian indie-rock band and their album ‘The Suburbs’, appears briefly confused by the words inside the envelope she opened; cameras trained for reaction shots of each of Arcade Fire’s contestants capture emotions ranging from oh-that’s-good-for-them (Perry) to oh-you-have-to-be-kidding-me ( Eminem’s producer, Dr. Dre).
Afterwards, the band members gather behind a microphone, where frontman Win Butler both says “What the hell?” and “Holy shit!” before telling the audience that he’s “gonna play another song because we love the music”.
Serious, exuberant, slightly insufferable: Arcade Fire’s unlikely Grammys moment crystallized everything that had propelled the band’s rapid rise from Montreal’s arty underground scene to mutually admiring friendships with David Bowie and Bruce Springsteen. But it also marked a turning point: After “The Suburbs,” Butler and his bandmates — including his wife, Régine Chassagne, and brother, Will — took a darker, more sarcastic turn, trading whoa gang voices -oh-oh against sweaty disco beats and abandoning thoughts of family and religion to ponder the devious encroachments of Big Tech.
“Reflektor,” from 2013, had enough of the familiar energy of Arcade Fire to maintain the band’s headlining status even as the rest of indie rock became dreamy and introspective. Still, 2017’s cynical but incisive “Everything Now” turned many viewers off the band; it was the first of the band’s five albums to not earn Pitchfork’s coveted Best New Music commendation.
Now, five years later, Arcade Fire is back with its sixth feature, “We”, which is billed as a return to its open ways: an “All That You Can’t Leave Behind”, essentially, after a ” Zooropa” and a “Pop”, to do the U2 comparison this crew had been courting all along. Over the past few weeks, the band – minus Will Butler, who quit for vaguely stated reasons after recording “We” – even ventured to some of the hallowed places where Arcade Fire made their name, Coachella and New York’s Bowery Ballroom among them, for transpiring, small-scale gigs intended to demonstrate his recommitment to the grassroots.
Which isn’t to say Butler’s worries about the internet have suddenly been allayed. “Born in the Abyss / New Phone, Who Is It?” he asks in his breathless cry in “Age of Anxiety II (Rabbit Hole)”; “We Unsubscribe/F—Season 5,” goes a line in the last movement of “End of the Empire I-IV.” (Those cumbersome titles? Remember that Arcade Fire’s 2004 debut album “Funeral” contained no less than four tracks titled “Neighborhood,” each with a distinctive parenthesis.) In “Lightning I, II” – hey, I warned you – he glimpses “tires…burning in the middle of Rodeo Drive”, just a scene from a startling dystopian vision.
Unlike “Reflektor” and “Everything Now,” “We” hints that humans may still remember how to connect in the flesh. “I’ll be yours / You can be mine / Love unites,” Chassagne sings in “Unconditional II (Race and Religion)”, while Butler in the closing title track rhymes “get on one knee with “get off this ride with me.” “Unconditional I (Lookout Kid)”, which the singer addresses to his 9-year-old son and that of Chassagne, advises faith in his physical body: “You can dance / And you can shake / Things will break / You make mistakes. It’s easy to hear him thinking about his youth here, especially given the surge of Arcade Fire indebted acts such as Gang of Youths who have brought this proudly passionate approach back into fashion lately.
Musically, Arcade Fire returned to the hand-played textures of their early tracks – lots of strings, keys and woodwinds, including the harp played by Butler’s mother – although the band didn’t give up the elegant digital rhythms like those of “Race”. and Religion,” which features wailing background vocals from Peter Gabriel, and “Rabbit Hole.” (Butler and Chassagne produced the album with Nigel Godrich, best known for his work with Radiohead.)
All that sounds good – pretty and luscious and rich, with vocals close enough to catch every crack of theatrically sincere vocals. But the long, meandering songs don’t stick like the best of Arcade Fire’s older ones, let alone the new rock tunes adjacent to the hearts of other independent survivors of the killers and the war on drugs. There is nothing as euphoric as “Wake Up” or as nervous as “Ready to Start” or as sensual as “My Body Is a Cage”; none of the melodies are as finely sculpted as those on the underrated “Everything Now,” which hopefully will be re-evaluated once social media finally hits the hellish level Butler predicted.
Arcade Fire’s promise from the start was transcendence through emotional grandeur. But “We” suggests it’s hard to achieve communion without songs that lift voices and not just spirits.