It is strange to feel personally disappointed by an artist, but this is one of the many humiliations of fandom. You allow yourself to believe in people you’ll never meet, and you experience that loss of belief as a kind of betrayal. You ask yourself: Why did I ever like this? And you assume the fault belongs to someone else.
This is how I felt when Arcade Fire released Everything Now. The band’s attempt at dance-rock crossover was crammed full of irritating melodies and cringe-worthy lyrics whose social commentary was so obvious even I could have written it. The real-time reaction on Twitter was essentially: what in the hell. I remember listening to the album over and over the week of its release, searching for more than a couple good tracks, trying to convince myself that this time was well spent.
So when the band announced a new album entitled WE, I prepared for something embarrassing. Instead, the two-part first single “The Lightning I, II” felt like a call-back to the band’s heyday, a stirring anthem that rapidly accelerates into precisely the sort of driving, pounding, deeply earnest rock song that they hadn’t released in over a decade. I listened, and I listened again, and I allowed myself, just a bit, to believe.
After all, Arcade Fire were once the sort of band that compels a kind of faith. They arrived just as the NYC scene was starting to burn out, when people were discovering that post-punk would only stay revived for so long and the Strokes were just going to make one record over and over again. They wore costumes and charmed David Bowie and made a classic album on a shoestring — and then they decamped to a church outside of Montreal and made an even better one. Is it any surprise that they were once my favorite band?
Arcade Fire may not have been the first band I loved, but they remain the earliest whose music still moves me. Their best songs achieve an ecstatic high for minutes at a time, racing to the peak and staying put. Both Funeral and Neon Bible represent the absolute accomplishment of a particular indie rock moment — untouchable, excitable albums that mix joyous compositions with a deep and abiding sense of unease. You bop along with “(Antichrist Television Blues)” and its call-and-response beat, only to end the song with ashes in your mouth. Neon Bible remains unmatched in its balance of the anthemic and the obscure, the way it offsets the brightness of a mandolin with a droning organ or a darkly burbling synthesizer and ominous warnings about foreign wars and rising seas. Their vision exists not just moment-to-moment but in totality, on the level of the album, as well as the song.
I first watched the video for “Rebellion (Lies)” during an afternoon MTV block; when I found a low-quality download on an mp3 blog, it was all I listened to until my local record store could stock the CD. I made friends on the back of my fandom, and when Neon Bible leaked, one of those friends burned me a copy that I listened to hundreds of times while sitting in the halls of my high school and shelving books at work. Only when the album actually came out did I realize that it was missing a track. When I saw them headline a daylong bill on New York City’s Randall’s Island, it was with 25,000 other people. It’s still the best show I’ve ever been to, as well as the first and last time I’ve ever shared something I genuinely loved with a crowd so large.
Both Funeral and Neon Bible represent the absolute accomplishment of a particular indie rock moment
It made sense that Arcade Fire would get popular, but I always doubted their ability to get megastar huge. They always seemed too willing to alienate their audience, to dwell in that darkness without providing terribly much light. They followed up their Grammy Album of the Year win with a (very good) double-album of blown-out electronics and rara grooves, more Fear of Music than Achtung Baby. Win Butler has never had the persona (or the pipes) of a pure rock star frontman, and his exchanges with Regine Chassagne have always felt like small details of a holistic design. You came for the band, not the personalities.
Not that this has ever stopped them from trying. Reflektor was teased with graffiti ads around the world, and the band got its own celebrity-festooned network TV performance special. Everything Now came with production by members of Portishead and Daft Punk, and a (massively misconceived) attempt at a viral marketing campaign about social media and content consumption and other circa-2017 buzzwords.
WE represents another, far more earnest shot at the crown. After multiple botched album roll-outs, it was genuinely endearing to watch them go the old-fashioned route, surprise releasing singles and playing sweaty shows in tiny clubs to adoring audiences. For the first time in years, I allowed myself to believe, however cautiously, in a new album from Arcade Fire.
The band has never made an album this straight-forward. Songs are reasonably short relative to their twisty, constantly evolving structures, organized like a series of tightly-controlled dopamine hits. “Age of Anxiety I” begins as a synth pulse before dropping a spare house beat, and for a good while the album calls back to Reflektor and its bad vibe dance tunes. “The Lightning I, II” condenses the band’s Springsteen worship down to a series of pounding piano chords and full-throated declarations. The multi-part “End of the Empire I-III” is Butler’s best argument yet as an heir to Bowie. And I appreciate their willingness to end the album on a quiet note, a few 12-string strums and an earnest request to live in love, even after the end of the world.
If only the rest of the album were willing to speak so softly. WE is split into 7 tracks over two sides: the I half focuses on the poison of darkness and alienation, while the WE side aims to provide us with the antidote. So yes, the band is trying to say something about the way we live now. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach. Bands like The Weather Station and I Like Trains have lately channeled such modern anxieties into their music, and to great effect. If we’re going to live our lives online, our art might as well reflect that — and considering all the loneliness and despair that flows from screen-life, I don’t see why Win Butler shouldn’t point it out.
The trouble is in how he goes about telling us. Arcade Fire began their career speaking to the anxieties of a cohort coming-of-age during an American presidency staffed full of holy war-happy fundamentalists. Yet Butler stumbles in his attempts to speak for that generation, to engage with how those worries have only deepened over the intervening years. There are some very broad attempts to define our particular generational malaise that no amount of Dante and Kierkegaard can justify. At times he resorts to clichés, and stoops to platitudes. “End of the Empire IV” and both “Unconditional” songs are full of outright howlers — “Some people want the rock without the roll / But we all know there’s no God without soul” — so egregious I was embarrassed to play them in front of other people. “Unconditional II (Race and Religion)” marries an undeniable beat with a pounding, Peter Gabriel-assisted chorus about how lovers can serve as one another’s “race and religion” — an unfortunate sentiment that they then have to repeat for the next four minutes.
This verbal softening is matched by a certain musical deflation. WE plays like a greatest hits album, running back all the flavors we’ve loved — folky belters, glam stargazing, downer dance tunes, ’80s synth-pop anthems — but without the snagging weirdness that prevented them from becoming the next U2. The first half of “Unconditional I (Lookout Kid)” plays like one of those Arcade Fire photocopies you used to hear in car commercials, while “End of the Empire IV” takes Reflektor’s glam fetish and strips away both pounding drums and stereo-shattering synths.
I have listened to WE dozens of times over the past weeks, and I still don’t know what I think of it. Sometimes the cringing overwhelms me; at others, I fall into the rabbit hole, and let the music carry me away. I can sense myself trying to like the album, or trying to justify to myself why I like the parts I dot, when there’s so much about it that I can’t defend. I seem to be searching for something more beneath the gleaming surface. I wish they could make another album comfortable with quiet, obscurity, and negative space. But I’m not sure you can do that and stay one of the biggest bands in the world. To return to form would be disastrous for their careers, and probably not all that fun. Just because a band was once your favorite doesn’t mean they’ll hold that place forever. You can always find another.
And yet. Watch this performance of “The Lightning I, II” on last week’s episode of SNL. The band is crammed onto risers on a fairly simple stage. Chassagne’s mirror-paneled piano is the flashiest bit of set-design. Voices crack. When the whole band throws itself into that accelerating second half, they barrel forward with the concentrated power for a dynamo. There’s no irony, no rock star bullshit. There’s just the music, and they mean every note of it.
Robert Rubsam writes fiction and criticism.