Ummmmm… There’s a new Arcade Fire record out…
ARCADE FIRE – WE
[Chamber Rock – Canada – Sony Columbia]
Montreal darlings Arcade Fire make their long awaited return with their first album of this decade. I grew up listening to this ensemble and remember buying their debut EP and Funeral CDs all the way back in 2004 after being blown away by the single ‘Power Out’ which was on heavy rotation on MTV2. After Britpop and Grunge had lost their dominance at the end of the ’90s, I started discovering more alternative rock from across the pond – the likes of Pavement, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr, Weezer et al. But to my ears, Arcade Fire and The National were two of the most exciting new mainstream alternative rock bands to emerge in the ’00s and it felt like they came crashing in on a completely new sonic wave, bringing a fresh new approach with them. I’ve followed Arcade Fire for each new album release and have fond memories of them headlining Glastonbury Festival.
Arcade Fire’s first three albums Funeral, Neon Bible and The Suburbs are certainly ’00s indie rock classics that still hold up just fine, but their subsequent work from 2013’s Reflektor double album onwards has been something of a murky area for the Canadian ensemble. It’s obvious they’ve been strongly influenced by trending sounds in electronic music – especially the likes of LCD Soundsystem, Daft Punk and The Knife – implementing crossovers with fairly mixed results that lead into their disappointing 2017 album Everything Now, which just didn’t play to any of the band’s strengths. WE is very consciously a return to the epic, bombastic chamber rock that made them so beloved in the first place. But is that sound still going to scratch the collective itch in 2022??
Lead single ‘The Lightning I-II’ certainly came with a lot of promise. This multi-faceted song is a ballad to start off and halfway through transforms into a wild, fist pumping rock anthem that has all the Arcade Fire hallmarks that we want to hear. Big guitars, pounding pianos, sweeping strings, choppy drums and those trademark choral backing vocals. With master producer Nigel Godrich (Radiohead, Air, Beck) helming the album as well, this could easily be the return to form that longtime fans are wanting. But… Sadly… This isn’t it.
Many of the songs on WE are suites with multiple parts – a technique made more popular with ’70s prog rock bands like Yes and Rush. But to my ears, a lot of the songs here have been sewn together like a patchwork quilt ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ style where one song feels like three or four little songs in one. This can be such a great writing technique when an artist is just bursting with great ideas and wants to make strong contrasts in mood, but it can also be a way to chain together malformed ideas that meander into each other. Such is the case of ‘End Of Empire I-IV’, which bafflingly feels like the band are quickly stitching together B-sides and leftover ideas. This suite goes from a laughably annoying “copying your homework” of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ and sticks together two or three underwhelming ballads into one frustrating nine minute mess.
WE is a frustrating experience in the fact that it sounds good and bad simultaneously. Throughout the record the piano melodies, the choral vocals, some of the guitar lines and especially the strings all sound pretty darn good and well layered. It sounds like Arcade Fire, but why am I not getting THE FEELS!? Well two of the biggest downfalls of this record are the production and the lyrics. Whilst the overall balance of the instrumentation is fine – nothing sounds particularly cluttered and it’s well mixed – the performances are largely unbearably languid, and the record sounds so clean like it’s been shoved through a laminating machine. This is a bad combo! ‘Age Of Anxiety II (Rabbit Hole)’ feels like there is the bones of a good song here, with an escalating groove, but my word does this sound so flat. The drums here sound like they forgot to take out the midi guide beats from the first demo. For over six minutes the band just build on top of this same groove and chord sequence but it just drags so bad because everything sounds so bloated and stiff. And this second part seems like it has nothing in common with the first part of the suite which is just a Coldplay song. Seriously, this sounds like about five different Coldplay songs wrapped into one.
Much like Coldplay, this album very much has that disconnected sensation of trying to say something really big and important – yet saying absolutely nothing at all. This sentiment could apply to the music, but it applies even more to the terrible lyrics. Sadly even the best song on the album ‘The Lightning I, II’ is a grave offender of this with a string of ham-fisted cliché lyrics. “We can make it baby,” “Don’t quit on me,” “Some you win, some you lose,” “We’ve been down and broken” – all delivered with a pseudo-Bruce Springsteen stomp and croon. You’d think after recently living through one of the most significant events in human history Win Butler and co would have something interesting to say and write about, but instead we get this primary school English class drivel. One of the better songs on the album is the token Régine Chassagne solo track that appears on every Arcade Fire record. This comes a breath of fresh air from the bloated ballads proceeding it and is a catchy synth pop song. Weirdly though, it features legendary vocalist Peter Gabriel but I can barely even hear him in the mix; it’s like they just phased him out of the song in post! But yeah, the main hook of this song is just singing the words “Race and religion” over and over as if it means or is trying to say something… Still, with Chassagne delivering some of the stronger moments with her lead tracks on Arcade Fire records, I’m just baffled that she hasn’t released a solo album yet.
So is WE a horrible album? No, not really, but it is frustratingly underwhelming and undercooked. WE is the sound of a band playing dress up – trying on fancy costumes with no event to wear them to. All of the Arcade Fire elements are here; the presentation and the sound kind of tricks you into feeling like you are hearing something good and familiar. But if you actually think about these songs they all sound like the equivalent of McDonalds meals. I’ve eaten, but I still feel hungry and annoyed that I didn’t go an eat something much nicer. The presentation of these songs all being lumped into suites when they don’t really need to be is confusing, the lyrics feel like they are trying too hard to reign in some social commentary but come across as hollow, obvious, over-simplified and tacky. And disappointingly, whilst the band’s musicianship and chemistry is fine enough, they play with so little intensity and passion that it just feels like they are just going through the motions. Considering what we know Arcade Fire to be capable of, this long awaited studio offering just doesn’t feel like enough. WE coasts by without ever really saying or delivering anything moving, exciting or thoughtful. And with a legion of fired up exciting new bands coming through (BCNR, Big Thief, Dry Cleaning and Black Midi to name a few) it feels like Arcade Fire have missed a vital opportunity to play catch up and remind the new school how it’s done.
WE is out now on all formats through Sony Columbia.