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.