Album Of The Week: Arcade Fire – WE

Arcade Fire return with a heartfelt sixth album that turns the age of anxiety into a sprawling alt-rock opera

We should have seen this coming. The “big black wave in the middle of the sea” Arcade Fire sang about on 2007’s Neon Bible has hung heavy on the horizon of every album since – the band swapping the personal tragedies of Funeral for deeper anxieties as they keep on trying different ways to soundtrack a party at the end of the world. Now letting the wave finally crash over them, WE sees the band return to honest, open songwriting as they fire another confetti canon into the face of the apocalypse. 

Where 2013’s Reflektor had Kierkegaard allegories and Greek myth mirror balls (and 2017’s Everything Now had smug anti-PR campaigns and matching boiler suits), WE arrives without the any of the same noise – a loud album sung softly as Win Butler turns his band back in on themselves for the first time in years. 

Arcade Fire - The Lightning I, II (Official Video)

Only 10 songs and 40 minutes long, WE is the shortest record they’ve ever made but it never feels like it. Songs, as usual, sprawl out in all directions to become mini multi-part albums in their own right, flowing over and under each other enough to make shuffles feel like cheating. Always standing with most of their many feet in the past, Arcade Fire are aggressively old-fashioned in wanting audiences to hear their music the way people used to – WE written as a single story that demands to be read in one sitting. 

Here the darkness that’s always loomed over the band’s best art-rock anthems feels more enveloping than usual; Butler admitting that he wrote the album about the grim world his son is inheriting. “One last chance… We unsubscribe. F**k season five… heaven is gone away”, sobs Butler on his prog epic ‘End Of The Empire I-IV (Sagittarius A*)’, part Beatles musical, part REM lullaby. Bowie, The Killers, War On Drugs and Pink Floyd also drift in and out elsewhere – not to mention inspirations from the supergroup of producers and collaborators standing behind the band (including Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, Father John Misty, Portishead’s Geoff Barrow and Peter Gabriel).

Arcade Fire - Unconditional I (Lookout Kid) (Official Audio)

Wearing their suicide party lyrics on their sleeves (“another cut on my wrist, another story to tell…”, “do you want to get off this ride with me”) Arcade Fire’s push towards stadium-sized over-earnestness feels a long way from Funeral but somehow even further from Everything Now. Campaigns for digital detoxes clash hard with references to obscure Russian sci-fi novels and Butler relishes the mix as he weaves in dance-pop (‘Age Of Anxiety II (Rabbit Hole)’, ‘Unconditional II (Race And Religion)’), Americana ballads (‘End Of The Empire I-IV (Sagittarius A*)’) and classic indie field-fillers (‘The Lighting II’). 

The best, though, is saved for last. Here ‘WE’ becomes the heart of WE and the heart too of Arcade Fire, Butler stripping away everything but sentiment to close the band’s sixth album with the same thread of joyful melancholy that’s powered them through the last 20 years. “When everything ends, can we do it again?”

WE is out now via Columbia Records. Arcade Fire have announced dates for their 2022 UK tour, playing Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow and London in September. Presale access opens at 10.00 on Wednesday 11 May 2022, before tickets go on general sale here at 10.00 on Friday 13 May.