Arcade Fire - We
After the slight stumble of 2017's Everything Now, Canadian indie rock heroes Arcade Fire re-center themselves on their sixth album, WE. Produced by Nigel Godrich, Win Butler, and Régine Chassagne, the pensive set captures the whirlwind of emotions felt during the first years of the pandemic -- and not just because of COVID-19 itself, but also from the drastic social shifts and interpersonal adaptations made across the globe -- and soundtracks that melodrama with a tightly sequenced journey that plucks from every era in the band's catalog. Timely and relevant, WE works best when experienced in a single sitting. Split into two parts, Side "I" comprises the two-part "Age of Anxiety" and the four-part "End of the Empire" suite, picking up steam for Side "WE" and "The Lightning I, II," "Unconditional" parts one and two, and the title track finale. The thematic split creates a thoughtful progression from the isolated and fearful first-person singular to the warmer, hopeful plurality of the second half, slowly unfolding from the persistent synths and dystopian feel of the aptly titled "Age of Anxiety I" and "Age of Anxiety II (Rabbit Hole)" into the nearly ten-minute epic "End of the Empire I-IV." Essentially four songs for the price of one, this climactic centerpiece is the turning point where fear and loneliness give way to personal rediscovery, togetherness, and setting our sights on what matters. As the piano-driven, "Imagine"-echoing dirge "Last Dance" bids farewell to American global dominance, the energy builds with the sax-punctuated, Queen-esque "Last Round" and the sweeping beauty of the string-backed "Leave the Light On," wherein Butler laments, "We've got one life and half of it's gone." Finishing with "Sagittarius A*" (the name of a supermassive black hole), he contemplates modern life and technology, pulling listeners into the now with references to social media, streaming services, and clothes that don't fit anymore.
The emotional catharsis and thought-processing of the first half is a necessary exercise that forges a deeper connection with each successive listen, but when Arcade Fire finally lock in on "The Lightning I, II," it's off to the races for longtime fans starved for the urgent, band-driven sound found on Funeral and Neon Bible, especially on the gloriously rousing latter portion of the track. The patient "Unconditional I (Lookout Kid)," a touching lullaby to Butler and Chassagne's son, is another earnest highlight that forgoes the production tricks and sheen that defined much of the group's sound in the 2010s, returning them to a pure and nostalgic time when they were just a young band from Montreal. Meanwhile, "Unconditional II (Race and Religion)" places Chassagne at the fore, backed by the neon synths and island percussion of Reflektor and a surprise appearance by Peter Gabriel. While not as immediately accessible as the all-star run of their first three albums, WE will at least be a course-corrector for fans still alienated by Everything Now and the underrated Reflektor, a satisfying journey that realigns the band's heart and soul.
On 180g Vinyl
1. "Age of Anxiety I" 5:27
2. "Age of Anxiety II (Rabbit Hole)" 6:41
3. "Prelude" 0:30
4. "End of the Empire I–III" 5:23
5. "End of the Empire IV (Sagittarius A*)" 3:54
6. "The Lightning I" 3:01
7. "The Lightning II" 2:34
8. "Unconditional I (Lookout Kid)" 4:33
9. "Unconditional II (Race and Religion)" (featuring Peter Gabriel) 4:20
10. "WE" 3:51