Photo Credit: Michael Marcelle
The husband-and-wife fronted Canadian indie rock band Arcade Fire recently celebrated 20 years as a band. Already with their debut album – 2004’s Funeral – they managed to make an impression on pop culture, and their legacy grew even bigger as they continued to release an impressive three-streak album run with 2007’s Neon Bible and the Kinkesque The Suburbs from 2010. More recent efforts, such as 2017’s dance-pop infused Everything Now, have been less successful, and one may argue that Arcade Fire today thrives on old merits.
At first sight, album number six – We – is a step in the right direction. Musically, it’s a pleasant return to the large-scale progressive indie rock of their finest moments and a withdrawal from the recent dance-infected Reflektor and Everything Now. Unfortunately, though, something’s missing. We is one of these records that sounds as if the group hasn’t been outside a recording studio in the real world for ten years. Every change of pace, every layered segment, every vocal line sounds just too incorporated, too professional, too calculated. The electric, almost aggressive pulse in some of their early work – let’s say “Wake Up” or “Rebellion (Lies)” – that would leave a Glastonbury crowd gasping for air waiting for the refrain to unfold seems to have vanished as the group has matured into boredom. Only when an electric guitar and some drums kicks in halfway through “The Lightning” do you feel stimulated in a way comparable to their older work.
Too often, We is more impressive than it is exciting. Take “End of the Empire”, for example. Technically, it’s a fantastic song. It introduces layer upon layer of strings, cello, harp, saxophone, trumpets, and violins to create a beautiful piece of music, sounding a little like the Flaming Lips’ American Head. The problem is that it feels too much like a museum object – you can listen to it, but you can’t touch it. To put it simply: it lacks soul. The lyrics are questionable, too. Is “F*ck season five – unsubscribe” seriously a hint to the criticized final season of Game of Thrones? Almost every song on We suffers from the same tendency, and the lack of a stand-out track makes it relatively inaccessible. Where Everything Now at least had its title track, the best moments of We are often hidden in anonymous segments of the lengthier compositions, hard to find unless you’re closely paying attention.
By the end of the 1970s, incorporated and overcalculated rock giants such as Crosby, Stills & Nash, Led Zeppelin, and the Eagles had to give way to new acts like the Talking Heads and Blondie, who more successfully managed to capture the spirit of the late-’70s cultural scene and mirror the real world through their music. The same thing seems to happen again with bands like Arcade Fire and Animal Collective. While We arguably is a step in the right direction and though it never sounds bad, it’s filled with forgettable and hook-less soundscapes with songs that lack soul and substance. In conclusion, We is definitely Arcade Fire – but it seems as if the fire has burned out, and what’s left are only the arcades.