Arcade Fire: We review – A welcome return to what they do best

The Canadians have ditched the pomp in favour of emotive songs that connect

WE
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Artist: Arcade Fire
Genre: Rock
Label: Columbia

Over the course of their two decades together, Arcade Fire have gleefully thrown caution to the wind with ambitious (perhaps sometimes over-ambitious?) zig-zagging musical leaps forward. The albums following 2004’s Funeral quickly ushered them from indie darlings to festival headliners, with records such as The Suburbs (2010) brilliantly capturing the musical zeitgeist while pushing their own boundaries as a band. Yet they lost their way with 2017’s Everything Now – an over-earnest and unconvincing attempt to satirise the media and modern life that out-Bonoed the U2 frontman himself.

The last two years have perhaps given the band pause to reflect upon their standing. While most bands would shy away from the very notion of a “pandemic record”, it feels like Arcade Fire are wholeheartedly embracing it – and that sense of honesty and vulnerability lies at the core of We.

These 10 songs ("side one" exploring isolation, "side two" delving into reconnection) acknowledge the turmoil of modern life in tandem with relationships closer to home. The jittery stadium rock of Age of Anxiety teases an uneasy eruption that never quite comes, Butler referencing pills, tears and repressed emotion in the midst of chaos. Age of Anxiety II, featuring Portishead's Geoff Barrow on spacey synth, recalls the band's Reflektor dance-rock era with tongue-in-cheek lines like "Born into the abyss/New phone, who dis?" Song suite End of an Empire I-IV's tender piano intro blooms into an epic torch song that recalls both David Bowie and Father John Misty's sentimental 1970s shtick, spitting scathing takedowns of influencer culture like "Your heroes are selling you underwear / And little white pills for your despair".

It's not all bleakness and jaded appraisals, though. The Lightning I, II is a rousing Springsteen-esque love song while Chassagne (supplemented by Peter Gabriel on backing vocals) takes the lead on the open-hearted, pinging synthpop of Unconditional II (Race and Religion). The sweetly strummed singalong Unconditional I could be an open letter to Butler and Chassagne's nine-year-old son or perhaps even Butler's younger self, while the title track ends on a poignant note that recognises the important things in life, despite the discord of the wider world.

In recent years, it may have felt like Arcade Fire had lost their way as they grappled with the realities of being a major band that felt they needed to say something important with each album. It may have taken a pandemic for it to happen, but We feels like a return to what they do best: writing epic, emotive songs that connect with audiences, whatever their size. It’s good to have them back.

Lauren Murphy

Lauren Murphy

Lauren Murphy is a freelance journalist and broadcaster. She writes about music and the arts for The Irish Times