The first track of the potent new Arcade Fire pandemic record is Age of Anxiety I. If you consider yourselves rock music conceptualists and you don’t have roman numerals attached to your song titles, are you really even trying?
Effort has never been a problem with Win Butler, the American-made mastermind of the Montreal rock giants. He’s a toiler, a galvanizer, an all-giver, a tryer, a rock-opera maker. Arcade Fire albums are forged by deep passions and steeped in compelling messages and dire societal concerns. Butler doesn’t know ditties – he writes sermons and calls to arms.
And, with his band, he’s on the comeback trail. On May 6, Arcade Fire releases WE, their first album in five years. They played Coachella this past weekend and will perform on Saturday Night Live the day after the new album drops. Finally following up the danceable, Daft Punk-inspired Everything Now from 2017, WE recalls the band’s early-career crowd-pleasers, but in quieter forms.
It’s produced by Nigel Godrich, along with Butler and Butler’s bandmate wife, Régine Chassagne. There’s not a lot of instrumentation – it feels like a solo Butler record, really. Maybe it’s not a coincidence that after the making of the record, Butler’s brother Will left the band.
The album takes its name from Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1924 Russian novel We, the dedushka of dystopian fiction. The opening Age of Anxiety I is the table setter for a pianocentric album that feels dispirited and depleted, but never disjointed, and ultimately uplifting. Butler’s trembling vocals skitter on rich, measured piano chords, with a quick, muffled pulse-beat in the background. Lyrics start in the first-person singular before switching to a plural pronoun: “I can’t stop crying” becomes “We can’t stop crying.” It’s a theme to the record.
At Coachella, the band previewed the song Unconditional I (Lookout Kid), a strummed-acoustic life lesson for a child. Onstage, Butler dedicated it to his son and began singing, only to stop in order to wipe the tears from his eyes. He told the crowd it’d been a hard year.
He can’t stop crying – we can’t stop crying.
Many – most? – fans and critics prefer Arcade Fire’s debut 2004 album Funeral or 2007′s Neon Bible to any the records that came later. They had drama, they had edge and they knocked a lot of us flat on our backs. But while those past works raised the stakes for indie rock in general, early Arcade Fire was a tough act for next-stage Arcade Fire to compete with. And, now, with its sixth album, the band has once again failed to exceed unrealistic expectations, even though it’s the best record they’ve ever made.
Second track Age of Anxiety II (Rabbit Hole) starts with reverberating piano notes. Butler rhymes “abyss” with “French kiss” and “arcadia apocalypse.” The rhythm peculates, the synths lick in – this is top-notch dance floor Xanax.
End of the Empire I-IV is a swirling nine-minute epic that imagines psychedelic rock at its most melodic and cinematic. I hear Lennon, I hear Bowie, I hear Flaming Lips, I hear Mott (but not the Hoople). Because the despair is so beautiful, the song can only be interpreted as hopeful.
The title-track finale is an elegant off-ramp. We’ve never heard Butler so gentle. An acoustic guitar is strummed, piano sounds dapple occasionally. Butler is considering giving everything away.
“Would you wanna get off this ride with me?” he asks.
The album, then, is Butler’s proposal: “When everything ends, can WE do it again?” He’s talking about starting over. Let’s call it, “Humanity: Part II.”
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