Crystallises just what makes these Canadians so great: when they hit the mark, there’s nobody to touch them
Back in 2004, a little-known band from Canada released one of the greatest debut albums ever made. Funeral by Arcade Fire was that rare thing, an instant classic – full of emotion, power and poignancy. Coupled with live shows that seemed more like religious experiences, forging a genuine connection with their audience, Funeral made Win Butler’s band into superstars.
The only problem is that Funeral may well be a bit of an albatross round the band’s neck. Subsequent releases all had moments of genius, but it never quite lived up to that debut’s yardstick. When Everything Now was released in 2017, the critical reception could fairly be described as ‘lukewarm’.
And while Everything Now was nowhere near as bad as some reviews made out (the title track remains a moment of ABBA-esque disco magic, and Electric Blue is one of the most beautiful things they’ve ever recorded), there’s a definite sense of a reboot with WE. At seven tracks long and just 40 minutes, it’s their shortest album to date, while sonically and stylistically there are a few nods back to Funeral.
Several of the songs are divided into ‘parts’, while the lightweight party atmosphere of much of Everything Now has disappeared. In its place are tracks that are sometimes stately, sometimes exhilarating, and sometimes baffling – often all in the course of one song.
A song called End Of The Empire I-IV whose main hook is “I unsubscribe… I unsubscribe” may seem a bit off-putting, but is in fact utterly compelling as it twists and turns it way through its nine minutes. The most obvious comparison is David Bowie, especially during his final album Blackstar, but there are also nods to Radiohead‘s more languid moments: inevitable as Nigel Godrich is on production duties here.
Those who yearn for the Canadians’ more exhilarating moments will find plenty to love on WE. Opening track Age of Anxiety I slowly unfurls from a slow synth ballad, steadily building up the pace, while there’s an absolute majestic key change when The Lightning moves into its second part which will have you wanting to jump out of your seat with excitement. Geoff Barrow of Portishead also gives extra depth to Age Of Anxiety II (Rabbit Hole) while the sound of Owen Pallett‘s strings is guaranteed to raise the spirits.
Of course, all the things that may annoy you about Arcade Fire remain in place: they’ve always ever stayed just one perilous step away from pomposity, and Butler’s lyrics do sometimes sound a bit like an old man shouting at a cloud (there’s the usual moaning about technology, references to “the kids” and at one point, Butler even sings “New phone, who’s this?”). Yet as ever with this band, if you can put aside your cynicism, it’s hard not to be swept along with them.
As is usually the case on Arcade Fire albums, Régine Chassagne takes lead vocals on one of the record’s best tracks Unconditional II (Race And Religion), a big sparkly disco number with none other than Peter Gabriel on vocals (you’d do well to hear him though, his presence is that understated), while part I of Unconditional (subtitled Lookout Kid) is vintage Arcade Fire – a big, singalong anthem designed to sway along to.
WE is, inevitably, not as good as Funeral. Yet it does contain more than enough moments to suggest that reports of Arcade Fire’s demise were very much exaggerated. It’s an album that crystallises just what makes Arcade Fire so great, and when they hit the mark, as they do several times on this record, there’s nobody to touch them. It’s good to have them back on form.