More about: Arcade Fire
No band wear their hearts on their sleeves quite like Arcade Fire. Their emotional honesty married with their constantly evolving cacophony of instrumental madness has led them to create an eternally impressive succession of masterpieces. Their music has always carried a sense of desperation to it, to live in the face of political and personal strife as bombastically as possible.
Only on their previous album, 2017’s Everything Now, did we see their ethos disguised underneath a layer of irony that didn’t quite work. Now one global pandemic later, the age of anxiety has hit an all-time high; Arcade Fire have returned with their sixth album, WE, and amidst the chaos and uncertainty of life, they are reborn.
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A very modern sense of dread haunts the first half of the album (appropriately titled 'I' ahead of the celebratory second half of WE). Album opener ‘Age of Anxiety I’ begins with a build-up of ghostly drums and soft piano, as Win Butler’s anguished vocals kick in, commenting on our emotional isolation in a fiercely uncertain climate. As the track transforms into a synth-pop anthem, Butler’s lyrics become more desperate (“another lost soul just trying to feel something”), and it segues beautifully into ‘Age of Anxiety II (Rabbit Hole)’ where the synth mutates into a New Order-esque disco fever dream. Butler’s vocals play off Regine Chassagne’s stunningly on this album, but they arguably shine brightest here.
As Butler reads off the stream-of-consciousness lyrics like the id of somebody scrolling through meaningless Google searches, Chassagne arrives as the super-ego; commenting on the events from above yet remaining ever knowledgeable (“going on this trip together, rabbit hole goes on forever”). The song demonstrates Arcade Fire’s knack for an intelligent earworm, clocking in at 6 minutes yet you feel it could go on indefinitely. The 'I' side finishes with the 10-minute opus ‘End of the Empire’, which has shades of Queen, Father John Misty (who initially contributed to the album’s conception) and the closing number of a Broadway musical. As Butler vows dramatically to “unsubscribe”, the song feels like the culmination of an era and simultaneously the beginning of a new one.
As the 'WE' side begins, we are met with the familiar cataclysmic intro of lead single ‘The Lightning I, II’. The songs on this side feel triumphant and raw, an ode to the persevering relationship between Butler and Chassagne, their son (on the album’s most radio friendly moment ‘Unconditional I (Lookout Kid)’), and the band themselves; there’s a certain poignancy to the latter, as this album was the last to feature Will Butler before his departure. There’s an unpredictability and danger to all the material here, like the triumph could be lost at any second.
“We can make it if you don’t quit on me, I won’t quit on you” Butler and Chassagne sing to each other, their vocals take on a call-and-response form not just on ‘The Lightning I, II’, but on ‘Age of Anxiety II (Rabbit Hole)’; WE sees the duo at their most connected as songwriters and performers. The apex of this celebration of life is ‘Unconditional II (Race and Religion)’ where Chassagne takes lead vocals, and she sounds glorious. After the troubles of the past two years, she sings with all the joy and renewed vigour of life coming back, and it is a performance to behold (and when you outshine the backing vocalist, none other than Peter bloody Gabriel, then you know you’re onto something).
WE is an album full of love. It’s full of heart, passion and soul. At just 40 minutes, it’s their most concise album, but not a second has been wasted. It’s endearingly earnest in a way Arcade Fire haven’t allowed themselves to be since 2013, and will go onto become another one of their critically-acclaimed gems. The title track and album closer sums it all up perfectly, taking all the dread of the first half and exorcising it gently. Cathartic and melodic, healing and growing. The journey is complete, and yet your answer to Butler’s final question of “when everything ends, can we do it again?” is an immediate “yes”. We needed this.
WE arrives 6 May via Columbia Records.
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More about: Arcade Fire