WE is supposed to be the anthemic Canadian ensemble’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind, so why do they seem like the ones left behind?
The first thing to understand here is that Arcade Fire’s sixth and second major-label LP, 12 years after they won the Grammy for Album of the Year, falls hard for two different careerist traps.
The first is the back-to-basics scam. If you’re a big-enough artist, you may well see the day that critics and established audiences alike hate one of your albums. For complicated reasons, that’s become rare. Music media rarely prints negative reviews anymore, and social media sort of keeps everything up-to-date in real time, so artists tend to discard poorly received advance singles or leave them off an upcoming record entirely if the backlash is loud enough.
That and a lot of reasons we used to hate records don’t even exist anymore. Favorite band flirted with ‘80s pop synthesizers? No longer an embarrassment in itself. Rapper started singing? Par for the course. Made a weird pivot to something new? It’ll probably be your cult favorite 20 years from now.
Artist: Arcade Fire
Label: Columbia Records
★★★1/2 (3.5/5 stars)
We have not yet reached the day when Arcade Fire’s rollout-obsessed, content-machine-lampooning 2017 effort Everything Now is considered underrated and worthy of reevaluation by the masses. But I’ll be ready, because it was awfully fun, even the parts that were kinda below them. From the title track’s ABBA-worthy fanfare to the danceably brainless “Signs of Life,” dark “Creature Comforts,” “Guns of Brixton” skank ‘n crunch of “Chemistry,” punk-then-country pisstakes on “Infinite Content” to the blooping desolation of “We Don’t Deserve Love,” it was a cheap thrill by design, something they’d earned after four sweeping, sincere monoliths that struggled to find their lightness.
Even the Achtung Baby-style reboot Reflektor shuffled along like Talking Heads at best; they could hardly make capital-D dance music if they tried without burdening it in two separate discs of references, cultural commentary, Greek mythology, or wide-eyed meditations on the “Afterlife.” It wasn’t necessarily any better or worse than Everything Now, though, just projects with different scopes, a highbrow one and a lowbrow one.
The new WE, down to its Peter Gabriel title, is painfully middlebrow. God, do they want to say something. They don’t. That turns out to not be such a big problem when we step back and remember what this band is and does, a conduit of feeling that pressures it out like a geyser, not our most literate or legible writers or processors. So when the best-in-show “The Lightning I” and “II” sound more like the best-ever War on Drugs song than a lower-tier AF highlight, the vagueries of “waiting on the lightning,” “a day, a week, a month, a year” become somewhat powerful mantras when they keep landing on the right chords to keep the momentum ascending and regal enough to drive the real credo “don’t quit on me” upwards into something like the feeling of being crushed by a handshake stronger than you. The “themes” get much worse than that.
At their most embarrassing, this lost-but-badly-trying-to-be-found band has verbalized some of the most self-parodic pussy hat burlesque to enter the rock lexicon post-Trump: “Born into the abyss / New phone who’s this?” Dead-serious call-and-response chanting “I unsubscribe” over a vaguely McCartney-esque piano dirge. Peter Gabriel himself is implicated in the biggest offender, “Unconditional II,” helping Régine Chassagne on a chorus that goes fucking what “I’ll be your race and religion / Our love is no competition.”
Texturally, this is their least flavorful album, which doesn’t help camouflage that lyrically, it’s one of the worst by a major act in some time. But give it more than three spins to let the melodies and chants sink in and songfully it might be their catchiest, too fitting of a major-label debut. Eventually every tune on the quickest, snappiest Arcade Fire album ever takes hold and you may end up humming along with things you never want to sing, from the “Walk on the Wild Side”-baiting “Unconditional I (Lookout Kid)” to its cursed counterpart, which is at least as danceable as synthesized Tegan and Sara. What “Age of Anxiety (Rabbit Hole)” ends up sounding like is Frank Ocean’s “Pyramids,” which is about to turn 10, a fellow wide-eyed heady guy trying to liven up his thoughts with the occasional sonics.
Because Arcade Fire’s songwriting baseline is at a much, much higher level than the War on Drugs’ lushly studio-disguised amateurism or the Killers’ profoundly uneven hits-and-filler, WE would crawl its way to four stars, I think, if not for these unavoidable bombs in the minefield of a lyric sheet. The impact of such foolishness is compounded by the fact they’re trying to be avatars of sanity, stalwart progressiveness and mental health. But like your average Bernie hater, these people just don’t sound like they listen. It’s harder than ever to hear the empathy behind such piffle, and don’t even think about writing these pilgrims off as camp.
It’s also especially foul for a mostly white band in the wake of a Pandora’s box of a Kendrick Lamar double-epic that’s overflowing with deep conversation and heartfelt conflicts of thought. But these steamroller hooks contribute one invaluable thing to the discourse: relief. WE grew in considerable estimation as I realized I was reflexively turning to it as comfort food after listening to a traumatic hurricane like Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers.
If you can listen past the unacceptably simple-minded rhetoric, there are simple-minded pleasures in the music. And WE do need those.
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