The Eternal Fountain of Youth in Arcade Fire’s ‘WE’
To submit to an Arcade Fire performance is to allow yourself to be overcome by sweeping, sometimes excessively earnest emotions. They are not a cool band, strictly speaking—at least not in the way we think of their garage-rock- and no-wave-loving 2000s contemporaries. That would require a certain icy remove. Rather, at their best, the Montreal-born troupe—currently composed of five people, though at one point it seemed as though they numbered in the dozens—has always peddled in big, fiery emotions that make you feel as though the body is just a cage for the heart to burst out of. Largely, that’s worked: If Arcade Fire isn’t the biggest band of the indie era, then they’re certainly the most enduring, having notched three Billboard no. 1s and toured arenas reliably for almost 20 years, shedding any notion of the label “indie” in the process. But the big emotions that got them there have typically required big tools to express: guitars, bass, and drums, sure; but also cellos, violas, French horns, and the occasional glockenspiel. And at their surprise Coachella return last month, Arcade Fire broke out yet another, slightly larger implement to convey those big ideas: wacky inflatable tube people, flailing arms and all.
The tube dudes came out during Arcade Fire’s penultimate song, “Unconditional I (Lookout Kid),” a single off their new album, WE, out this Friday. They were perhaps unnecessary. “Lookout Kid” is rousing enough on its own as an instantly infectious, gentle singalong that felt at home alongside classics from Funeral and The Suburbs. It’s also packed with the band’s trademark bittersweet sentiments—so much so that frontman Win Butler paused to collect himself after tearing up during the song’s intro. (“It’s been a hard couple fucking years,” he said to the crowd before restarting the first verse.) But still: Halfway through “Lookout Kid”—as the song reached its emotional climax—the tube people exploded. So too did the crowd when the air dancers first popped up. (And again when one nylon straggler finally fully inflated.)
At the risk of reading too much into a quick-and-easy stage design for a last-minute performance: How you feel about a moment like the tube people says a lot about how you feel about Peak Arcade Fire. Does the idea of 10,000 people singing da-doo-doo-doo as a 20-foot-tall smiling cylinder twists in the desert wind make your skin crawl? Does it make you pine for the lost innocence of youth? Is it too cute and overwrought—or does it seem like a moment for pure, cynicism-free catharsis?
There’s a small irony regarding this mostly irony-free band, however. That kind of sentimentalism had largely been missing from Arcade Fire’s music over the past decade or so, as goodwill and adulation gave way to eyerolls and critical takedowns. The shift began with Reflektor, 2013’s skittish, extra-stuffed follow-up to 2010’s Album of the Year–winning The Suburbs. While the James Murphy–produced Reflektor was accompanied by the requisite praise that had greeted the collective’s first three records—a Pitchfork Best New Music review, a David Bowie endorsement, more Grammy nods—Arcade Fire was moving in a direction that seemed to alienate some of the fan base that jumped on with 2004’s era-defining Funeral. A disco-tinged title track replaced the chamber pop of their previous hits. Win’s lyrics suddenly became fixated with the Big Bad of 21st-century technology. To promote the record, Arcade Fire fronted as a make-believe band, and when they announced the subsequent arena tour, they briefly toyed with a formal dress code for attendees. None of this was enough to dethrone them as indie rock royalty, but it did conjure memories of the worst of U2’s ’90s grandeur (admittedly a great place to be commercially, if not critically).
The skepticism that met Reflektor turned into full-blown backlash by the time of Everything Now. The 2017 record is better than you likely remember (the extremely online ABBA-ness of the title track and the propulsive “Creature Comfort” are worth the price of admission themselves), but it marked the sharpest departure from the classic AF sound, both musically and thematically. Win’s strength as a writer has never lied in poeticism or in wit—it comes from a heart-on-his-sleeve earnestness that taps into universal feelings. (Think: “I went out into the night / I went out to pick a fight with anyone,” or the way he turned the suburbs are actually bad into something of a rallying cry.) With Everything Now, Butler leaned into an ill-fitting cynicism, pairing the phrases “infinite content” and “infinitely content” (on two tracks!) and spewing sophomore-year truisms like, “Love is hard / sex is easy.” Likewise, the change in sonic palette that began on Reflektor reached its logical conclusion, as the group abandoned soaring indie rock numbers like “Wake Up” or “Ready to Start” in favor of artsy slow disco and, on a few songs, white-boy reggae. Mix in a strange, fake-news-inspired promotional run that also mocked beloved indie website Stereogum, and Arcade Fire finally felt like Too Much. Cue the one-time kingmakers now playing the role of kingslayers. (And this is all without the benefit of knowing that the band would one day play secret shows for shadowy crypto companies.)
Consider this an important prologue for WE, the band’s sixth and latest album, which the aforementioned Stereogum proclaimed last week to be Arcade Fire’s best record since Funeral. Your reaction to that statement will largely depend on how you feel about Neon Bible and The Suburbs. But I can say one thing with certainty: WE feels more like an Arcade Fire record than anything they’ve made in over a decade. One of “two or three” records the band wrote during lockdown, WE has none of Everything Now’s sneer, nor any of Reflektor’s bloat. It’s a tight, 40-minute excursion (split into either seven or 10 tracks, depending on your preferred listening format), and more importantly, it’s a wide-eyed, emotionally charged journey led by Butler and his wife and co-captain, Régine Chassagne, who sounds better here than ever before. Like Arcade Fire’s most beloved works, WE comes with an ornate backstory (this one involving Win’s grandmother’s copy of Charles Lindbergh’s autobiography and a dystopian Russian novel), and most of the songs bear Roman numerals—a sign as sure as any that Arcade Fire are feeling themselves. There’s a lot to love here even if—especially if—the past few albums have left you cold.
But while WE is a much-needed reset, it isn’t the back-to-basics throwback that the early headlines and jangly singles would seem to indicate. If anything, songs like “The Lightning I, II” are head-fakes: Most of WE is packed with shimmering, melancholic electro pop—more of an evolution of Everything Now’s four-on-the-floor crawl than a rebuke of it. (Shout-out to famed Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, who takes on the same role here.) WE also finds Butler at his most technophobic, particularly on the record’s first half (the “I” side, mainly focused on isolation, which gives way to the let’s-come-together “WE” side). The album opens with the two-act “Age of Anxiety,” a paranoid suite that references screen and pill addictions, Maseratis, and Kid Icarus Nintendo cartridges as Butler calls out, “Somebody delete me.” That leads into the four-part, nine-minute epic “End of the Empire,” which plays like “Five Years” updated for the digital age, with a moon shining down “on the ocean where California used to be” and an extended refrain of “I unsubscribe.” (Subtlety has never been Win’s strong suit in the way, say, two-tone pants are.) While WE’s predecessor was worried about what the future will look like, this record is often concerned with whether there will be a future to worry about at all.
On paper, this can read like a continuation of much of what made Everything Now flop, and that’s before acknowledging the occasional Win Butler groaner. (“Born into the abyss / New phone, who’s this?” is in the early lead for worst offender.) But to the extent that intention matters, WE is a return to much of what made Arcade Fire’s early records big-tent emotional affairs. The sarcasm of songs like “Infinite Content” seems to have been beaten out of them; in its place sits the sparkling optimism of a title track that finds beauty in the wreckage of modernity, with Butler rejecting his earthly possessions and asking, “When everything ends / Can we do it again?” The band doubles down on the hopefulness with “Unconditional II (Race and Religion),” a late-album Chassagne-led cut that boasts congas and a Peter Gabriel cameo. To Arcade Fire’s sharpest detractors, “Race and Religion” may come off as a simple love song that finds the band at its most trite (“I’ll be your race and religion / You be my body and soul”). But as Arcade Fire emerges from the wilderness of critical disdain and those hard couple fucking years, it feels like a true healing moment—one that seems certain to be shouted along to at stops on their next stadium tour, like Régine songs “Haiti” and “Sprawl II” before it.
The true heart of WE, however, comes on “Lookout Kid,” which should be no surprise given the subject matter. So many of Arcade Fire’s best songs deal with childhood—escapism on “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels),” the big bang of growing up on “Wake Up,” autobiographical ennui on “The Suburbs.” It’s earned them a reputation for soundtracking extended adolescence, whether in the trailers for grown-up movies disguised as kids flicks or interactive Google Maps experiments designed to pull from the viewer’s own nostalgia. On “Lookout Kid,” Butler dips back into to the well of childhood, evoking the whimsy and vulnerability of those early songs:
Lookout kid, trust your mind
But you can’t trust it every time
You know it plays tricks on you
And it don’t give a damn if you are happy or you’re sad
But if you’ve lost it, don’t feel bad
‘Cause it’s all right to be sad
It’s standard Arcade Fire, tug-at-the-heartstrings fare. The difference is now, Butler’s not singing to his past self or to the very concept of youth: He’s singing to his and Chassagne’s 9-year-old son. It’s a personal, full-circle moment backed by a gorgeous instrumental. Butler has taken to calling it a “lullaby for the end times.” It’s understandable why Butler teared up while singing it at Coachella, and by the time he hits the line “No one’s perfect” in the third verse, you may find yourself in a similar emotional state.
“Lookout Kid” is also a reminder that even as the new music evokes the old stuff, Arcade Fire aren’t kids themselves anymore. Butler and Chassagne are 42 and 45, respectively, while the other three remaining band members—Richard Reed Parry, Tim Kingsbury, and Jeremy Gara—are all north of 40 themselves. This band is not the same as they were when came together in the early 2000s, a truth underlined by the statement Win’s younger brother, Will Butler, put out when he announced his departure from the group in March: “There was no acute reason beyond that I’ve changed—and the band has changed—over the last almost 20 years.” A few years ago, it seemed as though that change may have done the band in. With WE, they’ve weaponized it to do what they’ve always done best: bowl you over with big emotions, whether you’re ready or not.
In that light, the Coachella set last month feels like a minor miracle, even setting the inflatable tube people aside. The festival has morphed several times over in its 23-year history, going from indie proving ground to EDM smorgasbord to pop behemoth. Yet Arcade Fire has remained one of its few constants, playing there five times over the band’s lifespan—a testament to their enduring popularity as it is to the state of popular guitar music. This year, as the sun set over the desert on Friday of Weekend 1, they took a smaller stage than they’ve been accustomed to in more recent headlining appearances at the festival. Still, they ran through fan favorites like “Rebellion (Lies)” and “My Body Is a Cage” with the ferocity of a band 15 years younger, despite being one of the oldest acts on the bill. (“The first time we played here was in 2005, when we were kids,” Butler acknowledged early in the set. “We aren’t kids anymore.”) At one point, amid the tears and dedications to the Ukrainian people and monologues about Pearl Jam and Coachella’s history, Butler jumped into the waiting arms of fans and crowd-surfed—all 6-foot-4 of him. For a second, he appeared to regret the decision, repeatedly pulling his shirt down as it rode up his long torso, but by the end, he was sporting a wide grin, having fully submitted to the moment. It wasn’t the most graceful part of the performance, and maybe it was a little too cute and overwrought, but only a cynic wouldn’t find some catharsis in it.