Reviewing the new Arcade Fire record is an enormous task, when one considers the ways folks respond to the band. For one, the band was the soundtrack to the 20s of a generation of indie rock writers who therefore treat every new record as a genre-defining triumph or the ultimate betrayal. For another, the band is defiantly earnest, like a modern day Bono, but there’s five of them (and two of them are even married, so one assumes the feedback loop is exponential). Arcade Fire plays rock music in a world devoid of irony, with the utmost certainty of their probity, for a world devoid of objective rectitude. To review their work is to make a statement of one’s ability to believe in utterly shameless sincerity. Oh, and to further muddy the waters, we must mention that the band has five records, with the first three universally acclaimed as generation-defining greatness and last two considered, well, “shit sandwiches.”
Here at Picky Bastards we do not review albums with star ratings, or numerical scores. No, our readers must actually read the text to determine, well, is this thing actually any good? With that format in mind, at the risk of jumping too quickly to the ending, WE is everything listeners say it is – corny, cheesy, bombastic, blustery and at times almost embarrassing in their assumed profundity.
It is also going to be on every Album of the Year shortlist, and damn rightfully so. It is nothing less than a spectacular accomplishment.
All the attention jumped to “The Lightning I” and “The Lightning II,” the dual lead singles that really function as one song – earnest, soaring opening, more traditionally catchy second half – that led the album. “The Arcade Fire we love is back!” Only this band could release dual lead singles and have it be hailed as a return to catchy, simple songcraft, but the “Lightnings” work both as standalone tracks and as a model for the record as a whole – Side one is slower, methodical, demanding of your attention while side two is all payoff. And yes, side one is the “I” side and side two is the “WE” side. Overly precious? Probably. Do the tags fit the mood, the vibe of the two sides? They do perfectly.
As much as Arcade Fire have ventured dangerously into “screw it, we’re just writing a Bruce Springsteen ballad,” before, “The Lightening I” takes that homage to a new level. “We can make it if you don’t quit on me / I won’t quit on you / Don’t quit on me / We can make it baby,” Win Butler sings over a swelling chorus, and he means it, and by the end, you won’t, can’t, wouldn’t dare quit on him. The slightest hint of ironic detachment would make this a failure, a half attempt at real drama. But Butler and Co. are fully bought in, and “The Lightening I” carries the listener with them to a perfect crescendo that has Regine Chassagne belting out “when the lightning comes,” carrying us directly into the second half of the dual singles. “The Lightning II” is Arcade Fire at their punkiest since The Suburbs’ “Month of May.” It is immediate, never pausing to breath. Taken as a whole, the two singles are one hell of an apology tour for the past five years.
Nothing on WE is quite as immediate, which is not to say nothing is as impactful. The band dabbles in indulgences without ever abusing the privilege – WE is 10 songs in just over 40 minutes and not a second feels wasted. “End of the Empire I-III” is, predictably, about “standing at the end of the American empire,” but hell if it doesn’t feel that important. What feels like a meandering ballad on the first few passes reveals nuance with each listen; despite the suggestion of a tryptic in the title the song is actually four mini-movements. A less disciplined band would have stretched it over 10 minutes; Arcade Fire does it in less than six. The band have reeled in their most troublesome impulses, letting the listener infer the epic nature of the songs rather than beating them over the head with The Big Important Song.
Elsewhere, the title track ends the album by formally eschewing the alienation and bleakness of side one. “I wanna get wild / I wanna get free / Would you wanna get off this ride with me?” / I wanna get down / Get down on one knee / Would you want to get off this ride with me?” Isolation and technophobia are out, marriage proposals and hope are in. “When everything ends, can we do it again?” are Butler’s hopeful parting words, repeated over the album close (the actual last word is a ghostly, ephemeral “We” from Chassagne to once again drive home the point – the only way to defeat the alienation and anxiety of side one is ultimately belief, and trust).
Arcade Fire remain a Sphinx; early reviews suggest that this record will be seen through an array of personal prisms that colour how it is received. Parents who love the band are going to be singing the clap-along jam “Unconditional I (Lookout Kid)” to their children; critics of the band will find it unimaginably corny. Both are probably right – Arcade Fire at their best requires skin in the game, complete and utter emotional buy-in. They give you back what you give them, and WE keeps rewarding that faith.
Words by Ryan Self