At a triumphant gig to celebrate the reopening of London venue music Koko last week, Arcade Fire concluded their set with the inflation of eight giant tube men. There’s no better metaphor for the way the Canadian indie rockers’ sixth album makes you feel. Rebooting the euphoria of their 2004 debut, Funeral, W.E. is a big old blast of an album. One destined to lift the spirit, inflate the soul and get fans dancing giddily through the carnage of 2022.
interviewed in Guardian Last week, frontman Win Butler explained that this is an album of two halves. The first explores the jittery isolation of modern life. The second resolves that tension by hymning the hard-won joy of unconditional love. Butler said he’d been inspired in part by concept albums such as Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, which give songs space to stretch, swell and breathe. Writing during lockdown with his wife and bandmate, Régine Chassagne, he created a sequence of seven moods and melodies that all have the flexibility to evolve in compelling ways.
WE opens with the thready pulse and panicked breaths of “Age of Anxiety I”. The title is a quote from Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s slim, unpunctuated 1958 poem “I am Waiting”, in which the beat poet yearns for an end to war, nationalism and environmental destruction when a “rebirth of wonder” will reform America. Arcade Fire’s imagery can’t hold a candle to Ferlinghetti’s. But there’s a directness in Butler’s lament for a world in which we “fight the fever with TV and the pills do nothing for me”. The song builds momentum across five-and-a-half minutes as Butler realizes, “I gotta get this spirit out of me.” The insomniac tension opens out of a 2am window and goes soaring into space on big chunky synth chords. “Age of Anxiety II (Rabbit Hole)” takes the intergalactic existentialism further, as technophobic Butler and Chassagne call and respond over an exhilarating beat of crashing metal. Flying saucer woosh-effects nod to the danceable bittersweetness of Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love”.
The atmosphere shifts with a brilliantly trippy Bowie-indebted, floppy floral blouse of a nine-minute ballad called “End of the Empire I-IV.” It’s a song of four phases that starts with the bedroom basics of acoustic guitar and piano, then billows into an arena-sized singalong – complete with swaggering electric guitar and sax solos – before returning to a thunderous piano. I genuinely LOLed as Butler kissed off the state of things with: “I unsubscribe. F*** Season Five.”
“The Lightning I, II” echoes the melody of West Side Story’s “Somewhere” and transforms it into something almost Killers-esque, as our heroes dream that there’s a place for them beyond 21st-century society. Butler’s refrain, “sometimes you win/ sometimes you lose”, isn’t Sondheim. But he gives it heart. And “Unconditional I (Lookout Kid)” is a pure, tendon-twanging delight, decked out in sweeping strings and handclaps designed to welcome crowds to festival fields. You can almost smell the beer-soaked grass and feel your friends’ arms around your shoulders as Butler sings: “Lookout kid, trust your soul/ It ain’t hard to rock n’ roll!/ You know how to move your hips/ And you know God is cool with it…” Chassagne’s sugar-light vocals float like sunset clouds delivering pretty vows over the bongos and slithery synths of “Unconditional II (Race and Religion)” as Peter Gabriel bestows his proggy-cool blessing via some lovely backing vocals. Then it’s lighters aloft and mascara smudged to the slow-fade of the title song, which turns into its own encore after a false ending: “When everything ends/ can WE do it again?”
Arcade Fire certainly have done it again. Long may they continue to make flappy-happy tube men of us all.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.