For almost twenty years now Arcade Fire have walked a thin line between sincere and sentimental. After a brief detour into sixth form-level cynicism on their fifth album, Everything Now – a record that saw the group form a fake corporation, publish fake reviews and tour the world under the banner of ‘Infinite Content’ – the group are back on their tightrope to do what they do best: tugging at listeners heartstrings with emotive proclamations about decline, despair and defiance.
The group’s new offering, WE, condenses what made their best work – Funeral, Neon Bible, The Suburbs – so potent into just seven tracks and 40 minutes: glittering orchestral arrangements rub against driving grooves, every chorus arrives stadium-sized and ready to be belted back, even Peter Gabriel pops up towards the end to lend some Aging Rock Credentials.
Yet WE is not Funeral 2.0 by any means and for all the harking back to their glory days, there is progress here also. The album opens with ‘Age of Anxiety’ part I & II a quietly building pair of tracks that take the disco influence of the band’s fourth album Reflektor and runs with it, layering in Moroder-worthy synths.
The undeniable centrepiece of the record is ‘End of the Empire I-V’. Clocking in at almost 10 minutes long, the track opens with a line about watching the moon on the ocean “where California used to be” and slowly unfurls into a lament for the decline of America that’s equal parts of damning and melancholic. It is pure Arcade Fire: grand, almost overbearingly earnest and precision-engineered to stir the soul of every ageing left-wing millennial (this is a self-drag as much as it is one against you, reader).
‘The Lightning I & II’ is the closest Butler and company have come to writing a Springsteen song yet, all stadium rock pomp and anthemic choruses. From here, however, WE is a victim of its own success and ‘Unconditional’ parts I and II feel flat and forgettable after such a strong opening half, especially with eye-rolling lines like “Some people want the rock without the roll, but we all know there’s no god without soul.” The album’s title track, which closes the record, suffers a similar fate – a simple guitar-led ballad that feels dwarfed by the ambition of earlier tracks.
The world has changed in countless ways since Arcade Fire first emerged in 2004 and at various points on WE the band feel at risk of being left behind, or worse, trying to hard to keep up. At its best though, WE reminds listeners what made this group the indie giants that they are and even makes a case that for all our irony-fuelled nihilism, a little earnestness, and perhaps even hope, aren’t always such a bad thing.