Sometimes when I agonise over choices for albums I try and deliberately pick something out of my comfort zone. Try Yves Tumor (less memorable) or Genesis Owusu (a knockout). Other times I regress to the mean, such as realising I could only pick Metronomy when Small World came around, even if I knew its reception with the group would be mixed. After that pick divided opinion, I had no obvious picks until mid-March when, out of nowhere a new Arcade Fire single dropped. Of course, this wasn’t quite the surprise: the band had been talking about a new album since 2020, but it did begin to feel like many of my favourite bands had teamed up to make 2022 the year all their new music arrived. Not just Metronomy or these guys: Hot Chip released a new single ahead of a long-awaited follow-up to Bathful of Ecstasy this summer. All I need now was an LCD and Radiohead LP (well, we had The Smile) and I had the full set.
But when I clicked on ‘The Lightning I / II’ to listen, it was with trepidation. Because Arcade Fire’s last album was… well…. Not very good. This was a band I’ve loved since Funeral arrived to such a frenzy in (my god) 2004. Indie darlings that made music with not just two guitars, a drum kit and a bass, but violins, piano, keys, accordions, strange percussion, organs, and yes, the famous hurdy gurdy. When that was distinctly not cool. Yet, it worked. An American/Canadian collective, the band made sprawling albums that didn’t really have singles – staggeringly, only Rebellion (Lies) from back in 2004 made it into the UK top 20, and none impacted even in their own country – but were big, thematic statements that worked as a whole, from Funeral’s ramshackle tales of childhood and rural life, through Neon Bible’s dystopian statement on capitalism, through the Suburbs’ Grammy-winning take on middle American ennui.
Their work with LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy divided opinion, but I loved Reflektor’s shimmering dance-pop-rock and up to that point every single album they made topped the half a million mark in sales, making them out as one of the few crossover bands that still made proper albums, still did what they wanted and yet headlined everywhere from Glastonbury to Lollapalooza (and who I’ve been lucky enough to see a handful of times myself). They are an incredible live band. One – for me – that of the modern era you have to see because there are so many of them, doing so many great things, and there’s real artifice and immersion in their live experience. I’m already excited about adding Manchester to gigs at the Roundhouse, Hyde Park, The o2, Victoria Park and Sonar.
All of this on an indie label – Merge (home to Caribou’s Andorra, and other indie darlings and famed guitar bands such as Waxahatchee, Dinosaur Junior, Tracey Thorn, Camera Obscura, Eleanor Friederberger, Ibibio Sound Machine, Bob Mould and Lambchop) through much of that career staked them out as a group that, despite being catapulted into stadiums, retained that grounded, principled, inventive core that still hung together, even as they worked with Bowie and released music produced by James Murphy. It was just…. Things really did go a bit south. In 2017 they decamped to Columbia’s major label musical and released Everything Now, a (supposedly) bold statement on consumer culture and the internet. The problem was, where previous work had confidently dealt with addressing broad brush themes such as capitalism and wealth, rural communities, suburban life and then crossed over the concepts with amazing, crowd-swelling music that somehow felt personal but celebrated arena-sized singalongs, this was as close to a huge band rolling a dud as I can remember. Everything Now was a big, ham-fisted misstep that scraped past half previous sales. And I say this as someone who absolutely adores this band. I can recall only a few songs from that album, and it has aged like iceberg lettuce alongside the timeless feel to the likes of Wake Up, (AntiChrist Television Blues), The Suburbs, Sprawl II, Afterlife, Keep The Car Running, Rebellion (Lies) and Here Comes The Night Time. Sure, tracks like Electric Blue and Put Your Money on Me had all the melodies, but their sentiment was empty and the connection the band seemed to be able to hypnotically form with their listener was mostly absent. The less said about the likes of Infinite Content or Chemistry, the better. Perhaps, for once, they overdid their promo campaign, with its po-faced, repetitive message. We’ll never know how much pressure they truly felt making this album, or where, perhaps the pressure of major label living pushed them, but into their 40s, it felt like a bit of an event horizon.
So where does We stack up in their canon? The singles The Lightning I / II and Unconditional I (Lookout Kid) certainly felt like a pronounced step back to the pre-Reflektor sound (and for all that I loved that album, many fans did not). The former’s piano and acoustic / synth lead over heartfelt lyrics “We can make it / If you don’t quit on me / I won’t quit on you” with songwriting partners, husband and wife, and lifeblood of the band (now Win’s brother Will has recently left), Win Butler and Regine Chassange combining as of old, tugging at those heartstrings and staring into each others’ souls before the song changes up into a new gear, evoking Funeral as much as anything. And Unconditional I (Lookout Kid) finding Butler in tender mood, singing to his child, and feeling immediately personal in a way that much of the last two albums weren’t. I fell in love with these tasters, and had such high hopes. But I also worried this may be ‘the Small World’ effect though, with two great singles and an album that was markedly different to that first look – though of course I loved that record – and left many fans somewhat deflated.
First impressions? Mixed. Alongside the much more honed 10-song, 40 minute album that felt a subtle acknowledgement of their recent over-long and sprawling efforts, this was a far tighter, more focused record. No surprise given they had Radiohead producer/god Nigel Godrich in charge. But while the music was immediately fantastic, its two-side, earnest concept perhaps felt the band hasn’t quite rid itself of the need to make some high statement. Each album now seemed to have a ‘theme’, an ‘outfit’ and while part of me salutes the art-rock sensibilities of a band that wants their music to have meaning, and the balls to wrap it up in statements about the world, life and humanity, it works best when it’s subtle and not written in ten foot high letters with accompanying shiny text. The two sides ‘I’ and ‘We’ and some fairly clumsy track titles – ‘Age of Anxiety’ is very much what we’re living in but do we need to have a song title to emphasise it? – and some equally clunky lyrics – it’s taken me a long time to not wince when ‘Unsubscribe’ (in End of the Empire IV), and you wonder if a lot of the recent criticism of the band would have been softened if their method was slightly less overt. Because they are (in my opinion) earnest, heartfelt people, who care, and are not embarrassed to say it – their often unpublicised charity work in particular sets them out from a lot of contemporaries – and their songs are all around connection to each other and the world, and work best when it’s intertwined with the music and not stamped on the front before you press play.
The good news is, the more you listen to We, the more this fades into the background, and a really good, uplifting album emerges from the bold pronouncements. I’ve been listening to this for weeks on end and it’s an absolute joy to have in my life. I’m aware I may be partly or largely alone here, but I also say – like any of our AOTMs – this needs time and dedication to get the rewards. Because this is a band that is all about connection and when they are at their best they feel like you’re connected with them, their music, and each other. As an example, I still have a real visceral connection and reaction to the lyrics in The Suburbs, that only amplified when I became a dad: “So can you understand / That I want a daughter while I’m still young? / I want to hold her hand
And show her some beauty before this damage is done / But if it’s too much to ask, if it’s too much to ask / Then send me a son.” And in their best moments, they make you feel like their songs are written for you. It’s how I feel with so many great songs, and with many of the band’s previous best, from Reflektor, Sprawl II, Intervention, Wasted Hours, and so many more. These are songs that evoke primal emotions in me, and that’s what I search for in music, and why I’ve loved Arcade Fire’s music for the best part of two decades. You can’t manufacture that feeling (yes, the feels) and for them it’s there, and has always been there.
There are so many moments of this on the album of me. And even though it’s got faults, my overriding feeling is joy and release when I lock the headphones in and leave the rest of the world behind for 40 minutes. I have had a hard time of late, and this album has been a real solace for me. Age of Anxiety has…. well, it’s a good opener but the opening piano chords link irreparably to another song and band I can’t now shake and that’s put a dampener on it a little for me (and apparently has Father John Misty ‘on handclaps’). I’ll let others see if they pick this out the way I have. But while it’s a little obvious lyrically, what we get with We is that overriding ability for Arcade Fire to write great tunes. There are hooks all over the place here (as @misterstory might say) and when the drums kick in and the energy goes up a notch, I just can’t help but we drawn in. Rabbit Hole is an unexpected banger, full of nods to Bowie (‘Plastic Soul… yeah’) and shows some of the evolution of the band in recent albums to embrace synths as well as guitars and accordions. It really does it for me, like Sprawl II on a great big pill and some strobes. End of the Empire, while opining witheringly but delicately on the ‘fall’ of the United States, is such a great example of the band’s skill, and how they start slow with mournful piano and then just uplift more and more, and there’s a real ‘Suburbs’ feel on this. And its second part, once you get over ‘the unsubscribe thing’ it’s a really beautiful song. There’s a cosmic feel to some of this, perhaps a concoction of Godrich’s work with Radiohead and a hangover from some of their best work with Murphy.
But it’s on the second side (‘We’) that the album really elevates, with The Lightning I and II, and Unconditional I and II, a pair of pairs (if you will) that show the band at their best, and most personal. Lookout Kid is a track I fell in love with at the start, and it’s now a song my daughter loves and asks me to put on. So it’s an added personal connection, but it’s how Arcade Fire’s alchemy works too, somehow seeming to have written songs directly for you and that resonate with what you are feeling. As a father with a young daughter, it feels so aligned with so much of my emotions and brings tears to my eyes every time I listen. That is all you can want from music, after all. Part II surprisingly brings Peter Gabriel into the mix and it really works. It’s a rousing end to the album, which has a soft and glowing coda in We, with its simple arrangement and ability to slow us down and signal the album is over. Musically, it ticks so many of my loves for the band, but I know it’s only how I feel.
The other intriguing narrative here – and one we will probably touch on in the podcast – is, over the course of their music career, that well-trodden path from small-town gigs to stadium rock, and how that affects a band and their output, and how that changes how they see themselves and we look back at them. You can’t be the same people – even if you are married to the other singer and writer of the band – over 20 years, 6 albums, and an arc from small-town band to global rock stadium superstars, fighting to retain as much of what made you that fascinating proposition in the first place. I can’t think of many bands that have what they had back when, or that have currently progressed through this curve like Arcade Fire have. I’m willing to fight for this, too. They have been at times world-beating, and at others, seemingly off course and unsure of themselves. How do you write songs about your ‘Neighbourhood’ when you don’t live there any more? You can’t, of course, but I think they’ve maintained a lot of their character and style – despite many missteps – and We gets them back towards where so many want them to be. Of course, we don’t get to dictate where a band goes, or what music they make, but there’s something vital about being with them on that journey as they grow and change with us. It’s no coincidence that so many of my favourite bands of the last 20 years – Arcade Fire, Radiohead, Hot Chip, LCD Soundsystem, Metronomy – are around my age or so and I’ve taken that same journey with all of them. It’s what welds us to these artists, that connection, feeling part of their story and their own arc and changing with them.
It’s why I love this band, and why I always will.
3 thoughts on “June AOTM: Arcade Fire – We”
I don’t have the history with this band that Guy has or even that David and Nolan have. I not so subconsciously ignored them for … well, forever I guess. I simply decided that they were not for me very early and resisted all of the calls from my friends to give them a go. There’s so much music that I think this is a completely legitimate approach to consuming the right music by ignoring the wrong music. If I listen to a band, I really listen to them, I can’t have this obsessiveness watered down. So sometimes I just say no. You could say I simply ‘unsubscribe’ (insert knowing wink). Guy has made a great playlist to intro me to the band and I liked quite a bit of it and genuinely loved some of it massively. Intervention being a track that cut very deep for me.
So I came into the album with baggage but with a genuine open mind. Focusing on this album for a month would give me an opportunity to develop a proper opinion on this band. At 40 minutes and 10 tracks long the signs were promising. A quick look at the song titles suggested otherwise. WTF was going on here? Oh … so they’ve divided the album into acts … shit are they writing a rock opera? Actually, I think that they have done. It would be zero surprise to me if they announced that they were touring this album as a 3 hour musical with a cast of 2,000. It’s so musical theatre it’s untrue. But why am I the only one thinking this?
Win Butler has made comparisons to this album and Dark Side of the Moon (how humble!) but it’s The Wall that I think is the closer comparison. And once again … the rock opera / musical / musical theatre comparison comes up again?
Let’s do the lyrics first … wow. These are some of the worst lyrics I’ve heard in a long time. We had a discussion on WhatsApp. They’re beyond ‘on the nose’ they’re ‘in the nose’ or as Davide suggested, they’re on a new nose that has grown inside the standard nose. Like. Wow. They aren’t good. But … you can’t deny that they’re delivered with absolute sincerity and clarity. The vocals sit so prominently in the mix that they’re also totally unavoidable. When I stop and listen, it’s difficult not to cringe. Pretty much every review has mentioned this to a greater or lesser extent and I don’t want to dive in too deep here but I think it would be easy for a less generous person (or for me on a worse day) to write the whole things off because of this. But that would be to miss a lot.
On the first few listens I basically dismissed this as a minor work. But my son liked it so I kept playing it. Then I found myself tapping my feet. Then I found myself singing a long. Then I found myself enjoying it. Against every fibre of my being, I was being drawn in. Let’s state facts. I don’t love this. I don’t think it’s amazing. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t enjoying it and it didn’t sweep me up in it’s sheer stadiumness. Not only can you imagine every note and lyric being blasted out at a stadium but you can imagine yourself swaying and singing along.
It’s a bit like a minor-Speilberg film. You are totally aware of the manipulative mechanics of its construction pulling at your heart strings … but you might just decide that this is ok and go along for the ride.
Let’s talk ‘feels’. This album does give me the feels. But not the usual feels. I dont think I am emotionally impacted by any of the lyrics. I understand the subject matter. Many of the topics are close to my heart. The sentinment fits with me and many of my values. But pretty much none of the words give me the feels. However, I am responding, quite strongly in a more physical nature of the sheer stadiumess of it. The ambition and the mechanistic manipulation literally moves me and my son can’t still to it. We’ve had to stop playing it at dinner time as he jumps up and fist pumps at exactly the points that Arcade Fire expects him to. For an album that frequently touches on the detrimental impact of the algorithm … the formuleric process (aka algorithm?) of the stadium rock song is strong!
So let’s talk Springsteen. For years AF have channelled many Springsteen tropes. And they’ve done it very well. The Lightning I and II are the tracks on this album where they turn their attention directly to Springsteen. With, in my opinon mixed results. I hate Lightning I but love Lightning II. They are very closely mimicking the boss on these 2 tracks but ‘I’ mixes this with a chorus-line-like (musical theatre reference again) ‘inspirational’ chant ‘We can make it if you don’t quite on me … etc’ that feels SO forced against the myriad Springsteen references on the track. It sets my teeth on edge. It feels like they had a bag of Bruce-Tropes, shook it up and spat it out … and then chucked in the ‘don’t quit on me’ line from a different bag altogether (i think the big rock opera bag). The Lightning II however is perfect. It’s the album’s high point. Its shudderingly good.
Oh … and I do have a Springsteen shaped small hill that I am VERY willing to die upon. Hold on tight …
3 mins into Born to Run, recorded in 1975 there is a break-down of the beat and there is a brief interlude in the boisterousness of the track. At this point Bruce counts the band back in ‘1,2,3,4’. It’s a fucking magnificent moment in music. It’s perfect. It’s not forced, it was meant to be cut from the final track but there’s no way that it could be cut. It sounds like you’re in the room with them. You can feel the excitement and the anticipation of the whole band as they know they’re about to embark on one of the most incredible verse / chorus ends to a song ever.
I have for decades said that nobody (and I mean NOBODY) has ever counted their band back in mid-song with such credibility and impact since this moment. Everyone else that has done it sounds like a fake. It sounds contrived. It sounds embarrassing even. I am willing to hear any suggestions of where this has been done credibly and effectively but nobody has come close.
So when I heard Lightning I for the first time … I got the sense that AF were building up to something … I looked at the track time … it was coming up to 3 mins … I could see the track was going to run straight into Lightning II … then I had a premonition that Butler was going to count the band back in … but no, they wouldn’t do that … they’re massive Springsteen fans, they wouldn’t dare, they know nobody’s done that credibly for 47 years … and then he went and fucking did it. I came very close to never listening to the album again as a result.
So. This album is a very strange one for me. I love it, I hate it. But I am listening to it loads. I am not sure if I would recommend it to someone who had little history with the band. There are better albums out at the moment. But nobody else is doing this shit! I am just waiting for the 3 hour rock opera version.
Far from a super fan of Arcade Fire, they have a place in my world. They’re a playlist band. They’ve made some amazing songs but I’ve never spent that much time with their albums. I imagine the playlist that Guy made from Joey would be similar to something I would put together but my fandom would stop there, whereas Guy can dig deeper into credible volume 2 and 3 of playlists.
Arcade Fire are a band that for me have released an expansive catalogue of music that always finds a way into your heart (singles or albums depending how committed you are to the cause). I understand that with each album there is a different distinctive ‘what’ and ‘why’ around the albums sound and theme. This album took me a little longer to get there. Where I’ve got to is this is an album that needs to be heard live in a big venue or at a festival.
The big sound of the album seamlessly merges itself track by track, so well that you think two songs are one really long song. This is an obvious in the song titles. Joey called it first… but this could be a touring show or something you would see on Broadway possibly. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, it’s sort of refreshing seeing a band do this.
The album starts off well for me. Part one and two of ‘Age of Anxiety’ tick so many boxes for me musically. The album then goes into cruise control before picking up and sparking my attention at the back end. As much as this album is easily immersive and easy to get lost in, you are shaken out of your trance every now and then by some very questionable lyrics as Guy has pointed out. I’m conditioned to pay attention to the lyrics after a month of Kendrick and lyrically the two albums are chalk and cheese. It feels like there are some good messages throughout but I’m inclined to mute the lyrics over all after being caught out by some of the weaker ones.
I’ve been prone to listen to this on my Sonos in comparison to headphones. Find myself singing to some of the chorus’s (‘The Lighting II’ is a favourite). The album sounds great. I find myself questioning if I really like this album, or if I’m not fully into it?
I also need to flag that I’m not sure where ‘Unconditional’ belongs on this album? I think it may be my favourite track (excluding the out of key Peter Gabriel back up vocals). I wish there was more of this. It would have pushed the album into the really good category from back ground music.
Boy, oh boy, I can’t remember a last time I struggled with an album as much as I have with this one…
My history with Arcade Fire isn’t as constant as Guy’s, and I probably fell out of love with some of their output way quicker than he did. Their debut album, Funeral (my god, was it really 2004?!), had an enormous impact on me – an incredibly exciting, existential, essential record that sounded like nothing else at the time. Second album The Neon Bible was a brilliant development on the debut, adding those Springsteen-esue rock flourishes in a smart, subtle way – and in Keep the Car Running, they made probably my favourite Arcade Fire song. For me, things started getting stale on The Suburbs, which felt like more of the same, but with – for the first time – some rather obvious musical rock cliches that felt surprising for a band of their talent and originality. Guy, you are right that their next album, 2013’s Reflektor, divided critics and fans, and you might not be surprised to learn that I was on the side that didn’t like it all. I thought it was empty and noisy and pompous, and everything I’d loved about the band had disappeared, drowned out by an endless procession of rock cliches. Let’s not even talk about Everything Now, which I think I listened to once, though weirdly I am actually quite a fan of the title track, but that’s probably because it’s basically an Abba song! 😉
So I was pretty trepidatious tuning into this. And I have to say, it’s with good reason. The album opens with what is definitely the worst opening track of any album I’ve heard this year. Age of Anxiety sounds like a really bad Coldplay song, an extraordinarily trite piano melody and lyrics that made me actually laugh when I first heard them:
“It’s the age of doubt
And I doubt we’ll figure it out
Is it you or is it me?
The age of anxiety”
You think that’s bad? Oh, it gets worse:
“And we can’t stop crying and we really think we mean it
But the tears just fall on the sheet (Anxiety)
Another lost soul just trying to feel something
Trying to feel something, trying to feel something in the age of (Anxiety)”
What’s interesting isn’t just that it’d bad lyrically, and I’m surprised this hasn’t been mentioned that much in the comments yet – THE MUSIC is just as trite. Dull looping chords, swathes of quite naff, dated sounding synths. They don’t even sound like a rock band anymore. They sound like a phoned-in avatar version of a stadium act.
It doesn’t get any better, I’m afraid, either lyrically or musically. Apparently what they have to say is SO IMPORTANT they need to write two linked songs. Oh boy, those song titles. End of Empire I-III is about, guess what?
“Don’t you weep, oh-oh
Half your life fast asleep, oh-oh
Feeling uninspired, oh
Standing at the end of the American Empire”
Channelling late ballad style Lennon, the song then lurches into an outrageously obvious rip off of All The Young Dudes. Come on, guys, you can do better than this! Is this really all you have left? Lightning 1 starts with a Pinball Wizard opening, staggers along through a verse before hitting a truly turgid chorus, with synth stabs and electric piano that honestly sounds like Ed Sheeran covering Abba. It’s the worst moment on the album and that’s saying something.
And then….and then….suddenly there’s a moment as hits the next track, Lightning II, when they start rocking out in the Springsteen style of The Neon Bible, and I feel a little pang of what this band used to be. It’s a pretty anaemic rock-out and the lyrics aren’t up to much, but god it’s just nice to hear them sound like a rock band.
Unfortunately, then we’re back into more of the same….Unconditional I (yes, there’s two of every lyrical theme, just to really hammer it home, well done guys!). Well, here are the lyrics:
“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”
At this point in the album, I’m just begging God for mercy, never mind rock n roll. The Peter Gabriel duet of Part 2 fares no better, a strangely underpowered synth chugger that throws away a great chance to work with a brilliant artist.
Finally, closer We returns to the kind of vague sloganeering of a late Lennon style ballad. I wonder if Win Butler knows sees himself as some kind of Lennon figure, with all these Grand Important Announcements, but where is the band who wrote those complex, knotty, brilliant songs that felt other-worldly? Haiti from Funeral came on after I just played the album right now. What a magic, strange, beautiful song it is.
And it also made me realise – that’s what disappoints me the most about the modern day Arcade Fire: there’s no just no magic there. It’s all so obvious. No Alarms, and No Surprises. What a shame.