It’s been 11 years since I first saw Arcade Fire play live in London’s Hyde Park aged 17 and felt like I was having some sort of out-of-body experience. The countless people onstage were spinning, shouting and singing in harmony as the July sun set over a row of trees. The crowd was ecstatic, and the city behind it seemed to take on new potential. I feel lucky to have witnessed this when I was on the cusp of adulthood: what Arcade Fire do best is embody youth – its intrinsic hopefulness and the pain of knowing you will soon feel nostalgia for the moment you are living through.
At the time, the band were touring their 2010 hit The Suburbs – both euphoric and melancholic, it was arguably the last album that channelled their full force. The records that followed – Reflektor and Everything Now – retained the distinctive soaring melodies and symphonic proportions, but, perhaps simply because of their deliberate nods to futurism, felt less grounded.
Five years after Everything Now, Arcade Fire have returned with We, a short 40-minute album in two parts. A new record by a band known for their sprawling line-up, Bacchic frenzies and ability to evoke togetherness seems an apt way to celebrate society’s return to relative, post-pandemic normality. Unfortunately, documenting this very process – the gradual re-emergence of a sense of community in the face of upheaval – is exactly what Arcade Fire set out to do, and so it takes a while to get to a point where things feel celebratory.
We meanders through an A-side of on-the-nose dystopian lyrics and sparse, cerebral soundscapes. This is deliberate – designed to represent the isolation of “I” before the joyous emergence of “We” – but it feels like a continuation of the sci-fi era of Everything Now, which had a lukewarm reception in comparison to the chart-toppers that came before. On the opener, “Age of Anxiety I” – “It’s the age of doubt/And I doubt we’ll figure it out” – there is a build that drops into an electro beat, which is disarming when you’re expecting the band’s typically lush, layered sound. Where Arcade Fire often manifest a yin-yang balance of earth and air, thanks to the combination of husband and wife Win Butler and Régine Chassagne’s voices – the former juddering and cracking with emotion, the latter floating in breathy soprano – here we feel unmoored.
The thick wall of sound that makes Arcade Fire’s music so emotive is initially missing, perhaps to signify malaise. On We’s first half, which sonically explores a fragmented society, any momentum stems mainly from synth riffs and tempo changes, but the climax never comes. “The End of Empire I-IV” evolves over four sections, veering almost into “Bohemian Rhapsody” territory (including in its melodic style, at times bizarrely close to Queen or even Lennon and McCartney). “I unsubscribe, I unsubscribe,” Butler sings over movie strings, and a more familiar instrumental texture begins to flicker in the background.
Liberation comes, eventually, on “The Lightning I and II”. The track opens with the sound of a string section tuning up, before launching into a triumphant acoustic guitar. When the track kicks into a higher tempo halfway through, bringing with it the full-band power of strings, piano, chimes and group singing, it feels like coming home. From here We hits its stride: “Unconditional I (Lookout Kid)” stomps through suburbia in a tribute to Butler and Chassagne’s nine-year-old son, returning us to the freshly cut grass, riding-your-bike-at-sunset feel of 2004’s Funeral. By the final track, “We”, the album has mellowed, with acoustic guitar and Butler singing softly.
Despite the band’s communal approach, Arcade Fire make such profoundly emotional music that listening to it is usually a deeply solitary experience. Shifting your perspective slightly – perhaps back to how you were feeling in lockdown – allows the early spaciness of We to become less grandiose and more immersive. Though I longed for more lightning, in the moments that it does appear, Arcade Fire show they are still producing a special kind of magic.