Arcade Fire’s WE: Calculated & Concise, But Inconsistent

Between the excessive sprawl of 2013's James Murphy-produced Reflektor and the failed experimentation of 2017's punchable Everything Now, it might seem as if Arcade Fire spent the last decade actively trying to lose people's interest. Now, however, they're back; at least, that's what their Nigel Godrich-produced new LP WE wants you to think. Split into more introspective "I" (A) and outward-facing "WE" (B) sides, WE is a concise 40-minute summation of the band's previous work. Every Arcade Fire record finds them striving for epic heights and always falling short, though you can't say they're not trying really hard.

Yet, WE's intense effort comes across as forced and calculated, as if they're trying to unite their fanbase and, for that matter, the entire world. WE is one of those albums, a "we're all in the same mess together so why don't we all support each other and make the world a better place" type record, but Arcade Fire merely regurgitate information you already know: COVID happened, people got anxious and started self-medicating, the internet is a consumerist rabbit hole distracting you from actual world issues, race and religion unnecessarily divides people, and millennials who came of age with Funeral now have kids to raise. If he tried just a bit harder, frontman Win Butler could outdo Bono in worldly pomposity; from the album announcement letter name-dropping the missions of MLK and Buddha to the lyrics' forced togetherness and Coldplay-esque navel-gazing, WE reeks of the most unbearable sort of ego.

But how's the actual music? WE's biggest problem is its inconsistency, with its 7–12 (depending on how you count them) tracks ranging from excellent to cringe-inducing, often by the minute. "Age Of Anxiety I" thoughtfully if belatedly ponders peak COVID claustrophobia, yet never finds depth and musically builds up to essentially nothing. Its succeeding second "part" (really an entirely different song), subtitled "Rabbit Hole," uses well-assembled yet rather bland pulsating electronics to back its absolutely laughable lyrics: "Rabbit hole (yeah)/Plastic soul (yeah)/It's a real rabbit hole (yeah)/Rabbit hole, yeah, yeah, yeah!" (the impassioned Tonight Show performance of this song, with Butler and wife/bandmate Régine Chassagne's self-seriousness on full display, ended up looking quite foolish).

"End Of The Empire I-IV" gracefully begins with the "Last Dance" first part, significantly builds up during the "Last Round" second segment, achieves luscious beauty on the melancholic "Leave The Light On" third movement, and throws it all out the window during the four-minute final part, on digital versions separately indexed as "Sagittarius A*." Once Butler wearily exclaims "I unsubscribe," as if it's a triumphant rejection of online consumerism (the same system used to sell us this record, for better or worse), any ability to take him seriously is lost. It's a shame; "End Of The Empire" makes many valid points throughout, but the poorly presented "Sagittarius A," on which Butler and Chassagne contemplate black holes and the internet's assault on people's self-esteem, nearly ruins the rest of the otherwise elegant song, and significantly dims the first side as a whole.

Luckily, lead single and side two opener "The Lightning I, II" amps up to a burst of euphoric chamber pop-inflected heartland rock; concerned yet hopeful, it ranks among Arcade Fire's very best, even if it's a bit pandering (it seems that heartland rock effectively soothes fatigued millennials). "Unconditional I (Lookout Kid)" is a touching folk rock song for Butler and Chassagne's son, though good dance-pop production and an excellent Peter Gabriel feature can't fix "Unconditional II (Race And Religion)"'s nonsensical and utterly baffling lyrics ("I'll be your race and religion/You be my race and religion/This love is no superstition/United body and soul," Chassagne sings). The earnest acoustic closer "WE" sounds like it'll reach some epic moment of catharsis, but is instead a dull and inconclusive end to this wildly uneven LP.

By aiming for stylistic variety and trying to say something about everything, WE feels labored, lacking thematic depth and overall cohesion. Instead of adding new perspective, Arcade Fire opt for a surface-level survey of our world that's too clunky and scattered for longevity. The dystopian technological unease is philosophically reminiscent of Childish Gambino's 3.15.20, except that record was more focused and didn't care if people liked it or even heard it. On the other hand, the forced togetherness (lines like "Rabbit Hole"'s "Until the world is made whole/One body, one soul" and basically all of "Race And Religion") revives painful memories of Richard Ashcroft's United Nations Of Sound and Coldplay's Music Of The Spheres, two records whose fake deep, grandiose universality failed most spectacularly and hilariously. Arcade Fire certainly aren't as mediocre as later-period U2 or current era Coldplay, but Win Butler certainly sounds a lot like Bono and Chris Martin: asking all the same worldly questions with seemingly little genuine urgency and coming up with elementary answers that don't ease the everyday struggles, but obviously trying very hard.

WE has a smattering of vinyl variants, though the standard black vinyl is divided between a European edition pressed at GZ, an American edition plated at GZ but likely pressed at MRP, and another edition sold in North America but pressed at MPO. All of them are 180gm LPs cut by Ryan Smith at Sterling Sound, and there's no way to distinguish sealed copies of the MPO and MRP pressings. I ended up with the MPO pressing, which sounds okay albeit a bit muddy; the mix itself is dense and compressed, the levels between song sections aren't the most even, and there's little breathing space to begin with (the MPO LP sounds equal to or slightly worse than the 24/96 file). Side 1 has some mild inner groove distortion, and the pressing quality is average (mine was noisy and scuffed out of the package, though a vacuum clean helped).

The packaging consists of a glossy and embossed gatefold jacket, a 36×'24" poster with credits, a removable tracklist card lightly glued to the back cover, a printed inner sleeve with lyrics, and a 4" square "I Unsubscribe" sticker that gets more annoying each time you see it. For a $31+ single LP, it's a satisfying vinyl package, but only if you plan to look at it frequently.

(Malachi Lui is an AnalogPlanet contributing editor, music obsessive, avid record collector, and art enthusiast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.)

COMMENTS
PeterPani's picture

It seems, too many artists are in no mess at all. But to sell their output they fake around with suffering from World Pain. The other way - celebrating the joy of being alive and around with good friends - is much more difficult to compose... (needs the open minded creativity of e.g. the Beatles :)

ivansbacon's picture

Is vocalizing one's ideals and ideas of how to make the world a better place considered "worldly pomposity" in and of itself
Or only if one disagrees with the changes that are being discussed as necessary?

I know nothing of Arcade Fire.

PeterPani's picture
MalachiLui's picture

by that phrase, i mean the "save the world for my ego! save the world so i get half the credit for telling you fuckers to save the world!" sorta vibe i get from 21st century bono and now, win butler. not sure how you haven't heard of arcade fire before but the first four records are where to start (and end, really).

Jazz listener's picture

it’s a stupid phrase and your explanation of it makes no sense.

MalachiLui's picture

maybe try actually reading for once, i've found that doing that significantly improves my life and i'd highly recommend it.

ivansbacon's picture

Your stock and trade here are words, and how you use them is a reflection on you. Clearly the person who responded READ your words. Semantics yes, i do know what you mean (read books) but it was poorly articulated and clearly it said before you had a chance to slow down and think about how to make your point without letting emotions DICTATE your response.

Choose your words wisely, do NOT stoop to the level of trolls that may be baiting you. Your reputation as a writer is dependent on how you conduct yourself, defend your opinion but do it wisely.

I do not think Jazz listener is a troll. Other than the word stupid, their criticism was valid but just as poorly articulated as your back handed pompous insult of a response.

If you want your critiques to be taken seriously then you need to have the respect of those that wish to inform. (Otherwise you are just talking to hear yourself talk.) If i respect you and you write a review that i disagree with then i would feel comfortable having a discourse with you because i would know that you would be open to listening to my point of view without throwing insults.

Now, i am off to read a book titled "How to speak up about how to save world without being perceived as egotistical".

Elubow's picture

Your remarks are about as patronizing as they come. What gives you the right to criticize him in this way? Just because he’s a teenager? He probably writes better than you do. And as to your comment: “ If you want your critiques to be taken seriously then you need to have the respect of those that wish to inform”, would you have told Michael Fremer the same? How many times has he attacked readers with epithets much worse than Malachi employed?

ivansbacon's picture

How you can know that ego and credit seeking is the motivation for someone who wants to save the world and voices it. Certainly that is somehow your perception but it does not make it true. (Do not believe everything you think)

Does that apply to all who have those same ideals or just those that have the ear of society.
I have those ideals but i when i say them it just the cat that hears me.

If you had the soapbox, millions of fans, and had a passion to make the world a better place such as ending injustice, world hunger or tyranny how would you voice your proposed solutions in way that would be acceptable the standard you applying to Bono.
I.E. Not make you look like how you PERCEIVE the Bono's of the world.

Wymax's picture

Arcade Fire never really caught my fancy, tried some of the first albums. However, one song has found its way into my collection, albeit in a cover version of My Body Is A Cage by Peter Gabriel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=15E0swZPoQE.

Some would say quite similar, but the original never turned me on.

audiotom's picture

Sounds like mom should take your computer away
Or limit it’s use

Make your review, it’s a bit out there

Then layoff the diatribe comments to the reply section

MalachiLui's picture

a quick scroll thru these comments shows that im not the one going on a diatribe!

X