Album Review: Arcade Fire – WE

[Columbia; 2022]

At the beginning was the word!


It’s the title of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopian novel, written and released right at the beginning of the golden 20s, a century ago. A precursor to Metropolis, 1984 and Brave New World, the book is a somewhat pessimistic reflection on the present via an exaggerated version of then current political landscapes. The titular “We” refers to the citizens of the book, who live in a literal glass state: each house is built of glass, except one, which functions as a gothic museum. All citizens’ emotional and personal actions are state mandated and ordered, so there is no such thing as free will when it comes to choosing a partner. There is a grotesque revolutionary movement of furred people, who reside outside of the city’s gigantic border wall, and revolutions are debated. In the end, the citizens are subjected to a horrid X-ray operation, which removes all creative or emotional thinking, essentially rendering them into lobotomized zombie workers.

The book can be read many ways, but the most relevant reading is that it shows the fear of political ideologies enslaving citizens to the point where there is merely one single movement, with no dissent possible anymore. It’s the dream of the ultimate empire, which becomes a nightmare once that state decides that any form of free expression has to be crushed for the utopia to survive. Hence, the book is most of all a love letter to individualism. Just like Orwell, Huxley and, later, Bradbury, Zamyatin presents us with an authority whose rationale is that a “We” is only possible if there is no more “I”, that the desire of each political machine is in the destruction of all personality and character, leaving only subservience.

And then Arcade Fire went and titled their new record – which is all about how cool collectivism is – after the book.

OK OK, I’m a little mean. Apologies. There, let’s take a deep breath.

OK, where was I… ah yes, WE, the new Arcade Fire album, which firmly situates itself in the company of a certain subsidiary of lockdown records: albums that deal directly with the fallout from what can be described as a fairly traumatizing time for… pretty much everybody. The record, which is the band’s sixth full length, is divided into two halves, the “I” and the “WE” side, which are respectively meant to reflect on the periods during and after collective isolation, pandemic anxiety and media panic – something Arcade Fire has been interested in ever since their second album, Neon Bible.

Produced by Nigel Godrich (who shouldn’t need an introduction, but so what: over the last few decades he’s produced multiple Radiohead and Beck albums – oh, and he produced a still unsung masterpiece in The Divine Comedy’s Regeneration – among countless others), the record is a big step up from the dreary, generic, genre-hopping and ABBA-aping Everything Now; the perfect storm that almost sank the band’s reputation after an almost flawless run of avant-indie-pop records. Instead of doubling down on the sounds of the previous record, on WE the group circles back to their almost decade-old nocturnal disco banger Reflektor, darkening up the electronic palette and adding the strangely folkloristic-prog sensibilities that made their debut album one of the largest surprises in modern music history.

In other words, the record is neither here nor there. It’s not the old, artisanal Arcade Fire returning, and nor is it the full-on impressionistic modern dance which James Murphy helped shape. So, what is it, you ask?

First, it’s interesting to note that the record only sports seven songs – although 10 tracks, as a few are divided into movements (I-IV, I & II etc.). The songs feel like great statements, thoroughly composed and assembled with meaningful narrative logic. Again this is something Arcade Fire have not been strangers to, given how each of their albums has a sort of thematic arc, at times veering into straight nostalgia (The Suburbs) or technophobia (pretty much every other record besides Funeral, actually). Yet rarely did it seem so cohesively arranged as it is here, with songs that embrace the witty melodic breakdowns and stylistic detours the band became known for during their early years. But this time there’s a decidedly 80s prog side to the music of WE, the type you associate with Hounds of Love or Melt. Yes: this is Arcade Fire going full Peter Gabriel. Or rather, M83.

The band’s familiar pathos, which has always been Arcade Fire’s biggest ally and worst villain, returns strangely muted. Yes, the bombast of Everything Now is mostly gone, and instead we have synths a little more understated and instruments isolated, which makes for nice structural build-ups, such as in the opening track “Age of Anxiety I” and its sibling “Age of Anxiety II (Rabbit Hole)”. Both work in the same way as the disco tracks on Reflektor did; crystalline pop songs crafted with an intelligent ear for drama and tension. When both move into full-on dance sections, genuine excitement becomes palpable. It’s also a cool approach for a lockdown project, to magnify our need to, well, socially engage with each other and our own body through dance.

Régine Chassagne also shines throughout, no matter if as background singer or lead, such as on “Unconditional II (Race and Religion)” (I swear, those long song titles are a radio DJ’s heart attack). That track might well be the best on here, a beautiful synth-pop song that equally could fit on Bat for Lashes’ The Haunted Man or M83’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. It’s incredibly millennial, especially with its production aesthetics, but it’s so genuine in its earnest calls of “there’s no time for division”, it’s just lovely, the type of thing Duran Duran should be up to right now.

Sadly, this isn’t where this story ends. What is so strange about WE is that it often sounds more like it should have been titled I. Moreso than any other Arcade Fire album, it at times presents shades of a Win Butler solo album. There’s the closing title track, a somewhat heart-wrenching ballad with Springsteen aspirations, which never elevates above being nice and indulges a little too much in grand emotions; it lacks the climactic explosions that previous closers “My Body is a Cage” or “In the Backseat” offered. There is also “Unconditional I (Lookout Kid)”, which feels like a somewhat overproduced return to the folk-new wave cocktail of Funeral, but ends up being somewhat of a smoothie, lacking the impressive punch the other members brought to those tracks.

And then there is the strange medley “End of the Empire I-IV”, which melts Lana Del Rey Americana, Ziggy-era Bowie glam and Paul McCartney balladry into a really, really long ballad that makes up most of the record’s mid section, but somehow manages to leave no real impression or aftertaste. Personally, I enjoy some of it, especially when the song tracks off into those aforementioned Ziggy-esque moments, but it’s strange how a band that used to be so interested in providing twists and turns, varying tempo and tone, now just seems like they fashion a single thread around different interpretations of one sonic idea.

Maybe that’s why the following song, the back to the roots-rocker “The Lightning I, II”, feels like such a breath of fresh air: it actually does feel like an Arcade Fire song, with the full force of all players involved, guitars and synths exploding gloriously as soon as the song’s mid-section twist pushes the full force of a heavy climax forward. And yet, WE all know this formula by now, WE have seen Arcade Fire live, WE know how the trick works. That doesn’t mean it won’t arouse us, but there’s something almost rehearsed about that approach.

With its strange uncertainties and reluctance to push some noise over earnestness, it’s hard to say what I make of the record, honestly. And I didn’t even zero in on the lyrics, but some just jumped out which, while never being Butler’s strength are… well…

“Lookout kid / Trust your soul / It ain’t hard to rock n’roll / You know how to move your hips / And you know God is cool with it / Some people want the rock without the roll / But WE all know there’s no God without soul”. Ooof. That first part feels like a betrayal to Michael Stipe’s iconic lines in “Drive” (“Hey kids, rock and roll / Nobody tells you where to go”) where he discusses both the movement and inner urge, revealing the spiritual quality behind rock’n’roll’s individualistic nature, while the second part feels like a retread of Billy Corgan’s Y2k prayer “If There Is A God”: “And if there is a God / I know he likes to rock / He likes his loud guitars / His spiders from Mars”.

What do I hear you say: “more Win Butler lyrics”?? OK! “I unsubscribe / I unsubscribe / This ain’t no way of life / I don’t believe the hype” – “Midway through life / Virgil said ‘let’s take a ride / you’ll need a divine guide / ‘cause this inferno’s hyperdrive / and the dreams in your head / the algorithm prescribed / do you feel alright?’“ Well, here we are: Dante’s Inferno meets Markiplier!

I am really wondering why Butler has such a weird reluctance to embrace modern technology. Sure, social media is a hellscape and instead of uniting us or providing tools to understand each other’s perspective better, the web has almost become a magnifying glass for humanity’s inability to understand each other, but as Zamyatin’s book highlights: our humanity is derived from our own individual perspectives and experiences. If we lose our divisions, we not only lose ourselves, but we also betray what made us who we are – for better or worse.

Maybe that’s why the best lyrics here come from Régine, who embraces individuality by expanding on the concept that loving the other allows us to break down divisions, even if they still exist spatially. I especially enjoy this line: “Your sense of rhythm / How you take communion / It’s a door to the divine / It’s the moonlight on a landmine”.

That line right there: “moonlight on a landmine” – that’s the Arcade Fire I saw at 19, when the band’s members smashed drumsticks, their bodies and instruments against every wall that surrounded them, in front of just a little over a hundred people in a tiny club. It embraces the explosive qualities that can be found in a single person and the fear and danger that can come with loving somebody genuinely themselves. But listening to WE, I feel like Arcade Fire have, two decades in, pretty much become a machine moreso than a band.

To be fair, I’m happy the zombified corpse that was Everything Now has been dispersed with, and WE is no necromancy even if it isn’t as vividly alive as Reflektor was. But it’s uneven, uncertain, even uncharismatic in some places. It’s retreading old ground and shouting at clouds, but also genuine and at times beautiful in its crystalline synth-pop nostalgia. But in too many places it feels like the band has become all too much like the city structures in WE, the book: a glass labyrinth, where every wall is translucent, where everything is prescribed, where there’s no alarms and no surprises.