We is the sixth album from acclaimed alternative innovators Arcade Fire, the follow up to 2017’s Everything Now. Where that album was an examination of our consumer-led society, We attempts to come to grips with the last two years' events. Rarely has humankind dealt with the number of seismic events that have occurred in such a short time; pandemic lockdowns, fraught elections, global protests, and the tearing at the seams of society.
Taking on the task of teasing wisdom from these events is a tall order for any band. Arcade Fire fearlessly accepts the challenge. Win Butler and Regine Chassagne, the husband and wife partnership at the centre of the band, ask themselves the questions, “what is we? Who are We now”, as they process recent history.
In February 2020, the album seemed written and ready for recording, and then the pandemic happened. Regine and Win found themselves caught in the most extended period of uninterrupted songwriting they had ever experienced, and additional songs soon emerged, transforming the project. What resulted was a concise 40-minute release that tries to understand what we are going through as history is being made. Additionally, it explores the joy and power of finally being able to reconnect. WE is intentionally set up on the construct of yin/yang, one part what ails us, the other part what gives us joy. This is accomplished by the first side of the release being about what troubles us, the second side topically being about joy and love being found in one another.
Legendary producer Nigel Godrich produced the recording with Butler and Chassagne in studios based in cities from New Orleans to El Paso. Throughout the ten tracks, Godrich helps utilise the dichotomy of Win and Regine’s vocals to engage the listener along with providing crystalline production, so none of the lyrics goes unheard.
It begins with “Age of Anxiety I”, and we land in an age of doubt brought on by the 24/7 news cycle. Nothing is real, and everything is computer/PR generated. The sonics are at first minimal and straightforward with piano and a heartbeat bass, as the façade of the age filled with narcissism is examined. It is comforting to hear that trademark Arcade Fire structure progressing from the minimal to a grand explosion of emotion. The track is a solid opener.
The twin-track “Age of Anxiety II (Rabbit Hole)” begins as a lullaby with an interstellar feel that breaks into a jittery funk-filled dance tune. On the track, Butler pines for “the world to be made whole, one body, one soul” as dystopia threatens. The track would not have been out of place on the band’s Reflektor release. Rounding out the first side is the quartet suite of “End of the Empire I-IV”. The first section, “Last Dance”, is a piano/guitar ballad that examines the end of the American Empire, where again, the build of emotion makes for a mesmerising track. This segues into part II, “Last Round”, which can be best likened to the zenith of the planet.
"Part III (Leave the Light On)" references prior lyrics from the band. In this section, things have spun entirely out of control. Gone is a partner, the narrator’s centre from which he spins. He has fallen into substance abuse and despair, underlined by the lyric, “Didn’t think I could ever dream of losing you.” The sections up to this point have a Beatlesque feel; think “Day in the Life”. The fourth and final part of the suite is “IV ( Sagittarius A*)," which uses the title of the Supermassive Black Hole in the centre of our universe as an inspiration.
The sonic feeling is heavenly with gospel overtones that allow Butler to unspool some hard-won truths. He desires to unsubscribe from life as it is now by saying enough is enough to all the madness as the song ends with the lyric, “and the space where they say heaven is has gone away … Sagittarius A* WE’ll see one day what on the other side…” bringing an apt end to the first side.
The tone dramatically changes on the opening of the second side with “The Lightning I” as we flip from dark into light. The track is uplifting, dramatic and filled with hope. Along with “The Lightning II”, this selection holds the ever-present Arcade Fire note of optimism in the face of serious resistance, a hallmark of Arcade Fire’s lyrical ethos. Both songs will be epic in concert with winning choruses.
From the bombast of The Lightning duo, the energy is turned down a notch with “Unconditional I (Lookout Kid)”, an acoustic guitar track that builds once again to an uplifting result. Written for Butler and Chassagne’s son, it is an instruction to a child. The lovely track is full of what every parent wants to say to their child. “Unconditional II (Race and Religion)” sees Regine taking over vocals while addressing the sensitive topics of race and religion, the ultimate third rails. The track begins with a fantastic bongo drum percussion and then adds a funky mid 90’s electronic keyboard and drums.
The theme is love conquering every trial, exhorting the listener to get beyond the original sins of seeing people under the headings of race and religion. The Peter Gabriel cameo at the end of the track is divine. With “Unconditional II (Race & Religion)," the listener will come for the incredible insight and stay for Gabriel’s contribution. This track is worth the price of admission.
The final track, “WE”, winds down the release with acoustic guitar and piano. Interestingly this track reminds me of the works of Peter Gabriel, somewhere around the “So” and “Us” eras. The lyrics stress humankind’s commonalities declaring, “I wanna know WE” while asking us to join the journey to a better place where we are all included. The track, and the album, end with a mantra-like lyric, “When everything ends, can WE do it again?”.
Arcade Fire has produced another worthy addition to their stellar discography in WE. Fans will love the veterans of alternative music’s latest revelation. WE is cathartic and soul-cleansing; listeners will find themselves nodding in agreement while dancing. The album provides us with an acknowledgement of what we have been through and then looks to inspire us with an image of what we have the potential to become.
Arcade Fire has always been one of those few bands responsible for putting profound insights out into the world with engaging anthemic sonics. They might not be able to fix the world’s woes, but again, Arcade Fire provides the soundtrack to reaching for something better.