Review: Arcade Fire’s ‘WE’ is a satisfying rebirth
"When everything ends, can we do it again?" Win Butler asks on "WE," the closing title track of Arcade Fire's sixth record, and this will probably not be the only review to point out that it comes off like a mission statement for the entire album. Arcade Fire's last album, 2017's disappointing Everything Now, was met with the most negative reviews of the band's career, a noticeable drop in ticket sales, and it felt like the end of the era that Arcade Fire had helped create. The type of unabashed ambition, earnestness, and whimsy that they had won everyone over with on their 2004 debut album Funeral was not only absent from Everything Now, it was absent from both the mainstream that Arcade Fire had infiltrated and the indie rock underground that they came from. The era that Funeral ushered in only seems like a more distant memory now than it did when Everything Now came out, and it doesn't seem too crazy to wonder if the world has just moved on from Arcade Fire. But maybe being faced with that harsh reality is just what Arcade Fire needed to write WE, their most consistent and cohesive record since 2010's chart-topping, Grammy award-winning The Suburbs. It's a return to the form that birthed Arcade Fire's first three classic records, and even if that seems out of fashion, it's out of fashion in the best, most Arcade Fire way possible. They don't necessarily sound like they're trying to steer the culture with this one; they just sound like they're being themselves, honing in on what they've always done best, and coming out with some of the most affecting music of their career.
Broken down into five sections -- "Age of Anxiety I & II," "End of the Empire I-IV," "The Lightning I & II," "Unconditional I & II," and "WE" -- WE's presentation recalls the sprawl of The Suburbs, but the songs within these often-lengthy pieces feel concise the way Funeral and Neon Bible did. Each of the first four parts feels like its own mini rock opera, with the title track acting as the comedown that ties it all together. (Comparisons to Quadrophenia would be warranted even if the opening of "The Lighting" didn't sound exactly like Quadrophenia.) It feels humble and ambitious all at once. In other words, it feels like Arcade Fire.
Because WE is such an instantly-satisfying album after the most maligned album of Arcade Fire's career, it's easy to get caught up in talking about the ways in which it returns to form, but it feels less like a comeback and more like a rebirth. WE sounds more like the Arcade Fire who made Funeral, Neon Bible, and The Suburbs than Arcade Fire have sounded in over a decade, but it never sounds like they're repeating themselves. You can still hear the many ways in which Arcade Fire have grown as a band over the past decade, and it still feels like a very now record. Lyrical references to "the algorithm" feel like a second draft of what the band hoped to achieve on Everything Now, and the nervous energy of "Age of Anxiety" feels like holding up a mirror to the post-2020 world. The dancier elements that drove Everything Now, Reflektor, and Suburbs highlight "Sprawl II" haven't disappeared with WE, but they've been toned down to make way for a much more organic-sounding album. The last two albums were made with production from LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy and Daft Punk's Thomas Bangalter, respectively, who seemed like they were brought in to help push Arcade Fire out of their usual comfort zone, but on WE -- which Win Butler and Régine Chassagne co-produced with frequent Radiohead collaborator Nigel Godrich -- Arcade Fire have pinpointed their comfort zone and they sound content to be there. Sometimes you can hear a similar production style to the one Nigel brings to Radiohead, but mostly he just helps Arcade Fire achieve the sound that's most natural for them.
With a strong emphasis on acoustic guitars and pianos, WE may actually contain the most earthy-sounding music than Arcade Fire have made yet. On the nine-minute "End of the Empire I-IV," they sound like they're channelling '60s baroque pop by way of The Flaming Lips. On "Unconditional I" and the title track, they come closer to folk music than they almost ever have before; the latter sounds like Arcade Fire's version of a Tom Petty song. On the other end of the spectrum, they embrace their love of thumping '80s synthpop on "Age of Anxiety II (Rabbit Hole)," and deliver their most rockin' song in years with "The Lightning II" (and not in that winking way that some of their Rock songs do). With "Unconditional II (Race and Religion)," they offer up a polyrhythmic art pop song with backing vocals from Peter Gabriel, whose '80s output likely served as a direct influence. Arcade Fire have been tipping their hats to their heroes from the start, and as ever, WE does it in a way that sounds distinctly like Arcade Fire. It flirts with some new ideas, but those ideas always get sucked into Arcade Fire's own unique world.
The surface-level comparisons to the band's early days will probably be enough to reel back in some of the longtime fans who fell off the Arcade Fire train in recent years, but those comparisons alone wouldn't be enough to make WE the triumph that it is. This album stands so tall next to Arcade Fire's classics because it has the substance that those albums had, the feeling that those albums gave off, and the memorable hooks that linger in your head long after the record's stopped, just like Arcade Fire's most-loved songs always have. Even with lengthy tracks and multi-part suites, WE is an airtight album, void of fat and filler. Just like on Funeral, every song on WE sounds designed to be an anthem, leave a direct impact, and incite singalongs. Maybe that's part of what Arcade Fire had in mind when they were thinking about the concept of "WE." This is a band who always brought people together; WE is built to do that.