Has it really been five years since Everything Now, perhaps one of Arcade Fire’s most polarising albums? And my my, what a road we’ve been on since then. So, it begs the question: Arcade Fire, where are we at?
After the release of “The Lightning” I and II, we see that Win Butler and friends have taken a more traditional approach to their songwriting; not too dissimilar to sounds you’d find off any of their albums from Funeral to the Suburbs, but obviously with a much tighter approach to production. To me, WE sounds like the bridge between The Suburbs and Reflektor, and I’m all for it.
The album kicks off with “Age Of Anxiety I” and “II (Rabbit Hole),” and it’s a really strong start: the percussive breaths on “Anxiety I” make for a really effective way to almost unnerve you, and the beautiful piano hook that gets shaken off halfway through for this feistier synth-led other half. “Rabbit Hole” takes these same soundscapes but performs it in a way that almost leaves you in a trance. It gives big Reflektor vibes and prepares you for what the rest of the album has to offer.
“Unconditional I (Lookout Kid)” is a very sweet song. It feels like a hug straight from the band. Written with Win and Regine Chassagne’s son in mind, this wholesome track may come across as cheesy and cringey. If The 1975 can get away with it one minute and then sing about tucked-up erections the next, however, I really don’t see why Arcade Fire can’t write one with a more direct and sentimental approach. Yes, it may feel less three-dimensional than some of their earlier work, but I don’t think that should devalue anything else they do.
“Unconditional II (Race and Religion),” featuring the ever-wonderful Peter Gabriel, really brings those 80s vibes back into the mix (if you took off the vocals, I’d think you just played me something off the upcoming Stranger Things 4 soundtrack). It’s always a pleasure hearing the Regine-led tracks from Arcade Fire’s discography, and “Race and Religion” absolutely keeps that trend going. Having Gabriel on the roster of artists Arcade Fire have worked with is a blessing as they always know how to work with fantastic talent, and his contributions feel really at home here. I mean, shake up some of the instrumentation and it could be a Genesis track.
If you’ve listened to WE already, you may have noticed I haven’t mentioned anything about any of the “End of the Empire” tracks. Now, this again very well could just be personal preference, but every time I’ve played this album, the content of these tracks just doesn’t sink in and, instead, goes straight over my head; nothing pulls me in. This is a massive shame as I do seriously enjoy WE as an album otherwise. To have such a large portion of the record, around 10 minutes from the prelude throughout all 4 parts of the “Empire” tracks, somewhat affects my experience of WE. If you’re able to enjoy any of the “Empire” tracks, then absolutely all power to you; I hope to join you someday. Perhaps it’s just not the time yet for me to fully appreciate those songs.
The album as a whole certainly has an identity, but I won’t say it’s their most noteworthy work by any means. It’s a very back-to-basics approach that takes a lot of the best elements of Arcade Fire’s sound and streamlines them into one coherent record (which is absolutely fine, take it as a pallet cleanser if you will). I do, however, think that the production is slightly too polished. A lot of the time, I’m listening to the songs and feeling a build-up that’s never quite finished. In some cases, I think it’s literally just the dynamics of the mix, where something just isn’t loud enough, for example. Does that itself ruin the album for me? No, not at all. I think some albums are better suited to live performances, and from what I’ve seen so far, these songs do sound better in those settings.
I think this album will definitely be one that grows on people more as the days and months go by, and whilst it may not be the Neon Bible or Reflektor 2 that people will always seem to want (because realistically, people don’t know what they really want) we can always count on the fact that WE, will always have –
Fabulous music from the fantastic Arcade Fire.