Arcade Fire formed in the early 2000s and became an immediate sensation in the underground rock world when they released their 2004 debut album, “Funeral”. But it soon became clear that this scrappy band, fronted by frontman Win Butler and occasional singer Régine Chassagne – they met in Montreal, where the band formed, later married and now live in New -Orléans – had an ambition that far exceeded his independent beginnings. . Arcade Fire thinks big.
On their 2010 LP, “The Suburbs,” the band found the right mix of subject matter and scope, and the record won album of the year at the Grammys. In the years that followed, the group’s grandiose creations began to catch up with them. ‘Reflektor’ (2013) and ‘Everything Now’ (2017) leaned into dance beats and electronics, reminiscent of the change U2 underwent in the late 1990s. Arcade Fire announced their new work with catchphrases sneering and ironic about the emptiness of the contemporary world – the tour of this last record was called “Infinite Content” – which gave the impression that the group was positioning themselves above their audience, as if they were delivering important truth of ‘at the top. Arcade Fire’s sixth full-length album ‘We’ (Columbia), out Friday, begins with all the over-the-top inclinations of its more recent predecessors, but improves as it unfolds, eventually landing on simple and relatable human needs.
The disc is co-produced by Nigel Godrich (known for his work with Radiohead) alongside Mr. Butler and Mrs. Chassagne. Mr. Godrich specializes in lavish productions that artfully blend innovative technology with traditional instrumentation, and those elements are in proportion here, though “We” is slightly reminiscent of the electronics of Arcade Fire’s last two albums. It’s grandiose and orchestrated but rarely synthetic, and it’s heavy on the piano and the acoustic guitars. The melodies and arrangements are magnificent, and it is difficult to criticize the whole musically. But there are times, particularly in the first half of the record, where the band’s societal criticism comes at a spurt.
The songs on “We” are split into multi-part sequels, with titles that hint we’re in for another gnarly concept album about the emptiness of the present. On the opening “Age of Anxiety I”, Mr. Butler paints a picture of a nation gobbling down pills and numbing themselves in front of television screens, and the following “Age of Anxiety II (Rabbit Hole)” adds synthesizers sequenced and a 4/4 dance beat as he sings about data overload and the distractions of digital culture with lines – “Somebody delete me” and “Born into the abyss / New phone who’s this” – that suggest that we are drowning in meaningless memes.
Are these legitimately troubling concerns in our information-saturated age? Sure, and we’ve all been linked to Mr. Butler’s complaints. But that doesn’t help hearing him sound anguished as he repeats the phrase “I unsubscribe” over and over on “End of the Empire,” which is split into four parts and runs over nine minutes. Later in the sequel, he dismisses “season five” of a junky streaming TV show with an expletive and later adds a line about how our dreams are dictated by algorithms. That there is any truth to these observations does not save the songs from banality, despite the alluring sophistication of the musical structures.
After its didactic first half, the second half of “Us,” which turns its attention to the power of love and the need to carry on regardless, borders on set redemption. “The sky is opening,” Mr. Butler sings in “The Lightning I,” one of a few lines reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen, then the song builds and then gallops to a breathtaking climax. “We can do this if you don’t abandon me,” he sings over and over, and it’s impossible not to be carried away by the hopeful current. Arcade Fire has built its reputation on anthems like this, and “Lightning” ranks among the best of its career.
“Unconditional I (Lookout Kid),” a folk-pop stomper built around acoustic guitar, and “Unconditional II (Race and Religion),” a percussive-laden electro-pop number about being so dedicated to someone. ‘One That He or She Becomes Your Whole World,’ which is sung by Ms. Chassagne sounding a lot like Björk, builds on the optimism of “Lightning” and stands up to repeated listening. Peter Gabriel even appears on “Unconditional II”, reinforcing Arcade Fire’s connection to an earlier era of art rock. And the final title track, a beautiful ballad about blocking out noise and surrendering to love, ends the record on a hopeful and uplifting note.
Perhaps it’s the first half of the LP that makes the second half possible – perhaps Arcade Fire needed to show us where we are first, so the later catharsis would hit harder. But after listening to “We” several times from beginning to end, the more appealing it became to start with “The Lightning” and skip the first side altogether. These weaker songs tell us what we already know. The secret power of Arcade Fire, which emerges later, when the album finally hits its stride, is that it can take us to a place we can’t go alone.
-M. Richardson is the Journal’s rock and pop music critic. Follow him on Twitter @MarkRichardson.
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