If we could all open our Rock Band 101 textbooks to page 233, we will proceed with recounting the three steps to mounting a comeback for an embattled superstar act.
Step 1: Play a “secret,” “intimate” club show. This will make you look humble and “hungry again.” It will also compel the journalists in attendance write and/or tweet praise about how you have “reconnected with a lost sense of self.”
Step 2: Go on a media “forgiveness” tour. Implicitly acknowledge that your previous album wasn’t very good, an act of self-deprecation that will disarm the critics and make them open to the idea of loving you again. (You can also do this explicitly, but only if you have a sense of humor about it.)
Step 3: Give the people what they want. Put out an album that sounds like your older albums. Deflect accusations of pandering by insisting that “looking back is sometimes the only way forward” or “nostalgia is the newest form of innovation.” (It’s better if you put this sentiment in your words.)
In recent weeks, Arcade Fire have been following these steps with careful compliance. They performed a buzzy concert at the Bowery Ballroom in New York City. They were profiled by the New York Times under the Affleck-referencing headline, “How Arcade Fire Found The Way Back.” And on Friday they will release their sixth album, We, a severe course-correction from 2017’s pranksterish dance-rock misfire Everything Now that genuflects reverently in the direction of their first three (and most beloved) records. If you bailed on this band once they started aping ABBA while complaining about how these damn Gen-Yers won’t get off Instagram already, Arcade Fire wants you to know that your old fave has returned to their gloriously anthemic aughts-era prime.
When they previewed the album back in March with the lead single “The Lightning I,II,” the hype was awfully seductive. The most famous Arcade Fire songs unfold as a series of gear shifts, in which the instrumentation, choral voices, and sense of momentum are gradually amped up over the course of several minutes. (Or it can happen in just the opening 25 seconds of “Wake Up,” in which a droning guitar riff is soon accompanied by “We Will Rock You” drums, and then elevated by those stadium-cheer vocals.) When these gear shifts are done right, a Pavlovian feeling of exhilaration is impossible to avoid for the listener, like sitting in a car that goes from zero to 90 in 10 seconds before careening off of a bridge. “The Lightning I,II” suggested that Arcade Fire might still be masters of this primitive form of body-chemistry manipulation. In the song, a stately fanfare played on piano and acoustic guitar is lifted by a fluttery synth line. A mid-tempo drum part soon enters to add muscle. And then Win Butler says “one, two, three, four!” and suddenly the rhythm goes faster and faster and FASTER! When Butler sings “we can make it baby, if you don’t quit on me,” it’s as if he is singing to us (or We, in the parlance of our times), signaling a subliminal apology to prodigal fans.
We begins with Arcade Fire returning to this same bag of tricks. “Age Of Anxiety I” also opens with a stately fanfare that is lifted by a fluttery synth line. Somewhere in the middle, the rhythm starts to go faster and faster and FASTER! You know what Arcade Fire is doing to you, but your heart is beating faster anyway. It is thrilling, sure, but it’s also reflexive, the musical equivalent of a doctor tapping your knee to watch your leg move. It sets the tone for an album in which even the best moments are performed by rote and, therefore, feel kind of empty.
I was no fan of Everything Now, but I never doubted that Arcade Fire was following their muse down whatever daffy corridor it recklessly drifted. I could even admire Win Butler’s initial insistence on defending the record against its many critics. At the very least, nobody could accuse him of making a predictable Arcade Fire record. We, in comparison, sounds like a transparent bid to keep them from slipping irrevocably from arena-rock status. Which, perhaps, wouldn’t be a problem if they still had a tight grasp on how to write “classic” Arcade Fire songs. But while “The Lightning I,II” can pass as a suitable “Beautiful Day”-style reboot, the cloying “Unconditional I (Lookout Kid)” evokes the dozens of forgettable semi-indie also-rans who scrambled to imitate the big twinkle of Funeral in the 2000s, only now Arcade Fire has Phillip Phillips’ed themselves.
The most confounding aspect of We is that, despite clocking in at a seemingly svelte seven songs and 40 minutes, it manages to be just as bloated as their other recent albums. This is not a leaner Arcade Fire record, it’s a smaller one, a snack-size bag of potato chips with the same fixed percentage of stale air. After the promising start of “Age Of Anxiety I” and the similarly surging “Age Of Anxiety II (Rabbit Hole),” the record grinds to a halt with the interminable nine-minute dirge “End Of The Empire I-IV.” On this song the gears fail to move one iota, settling instead on an endless piano ballad about the collapse of the modern world that sounds like the product of mixing way too much weed with way too many listens of Norman Fucking Rockwell and Pure Comedy. (Father John Misty was enlisted as a consultant during the making of We.) Though no lyric manages to be as cringe-y as the part in “Unconditional I (Lookout Kid)” when Butler sings, “Some people want the rock without the roll / but we all know there’s no God without soul.” Actually, scratch that: The most wince-inducing moment has to be from “Unconditional II (Race And Religion),” when Regine Chassagne trills the chorus contained within that parenthetical over a musical retread of “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”
As was the case with Everything Now, the worst parts of We will make you question whether Funeral, Neon Bible or The Suburbs really are as good as you remember. And yet, at the same time, I find myself weirdly appreciating the overreaches more than the songs that squarely push my buttons. After all, overreaching isn’t a bug with Arcade Fire, it’s a feature. Unapologetic earnestness is their brand, and fearlessly ignoring the possibility of embarrassment has resulted in most (if not all) of their best music. There’s no shame in failure when you’re in pursuit of greatness.
What I find less charming is how resigned to replicating faded glories the rest of We is. That triumphant joie de vivre in which The Killers reveled on their 2020 comeback Imploding The Mirage is conspicuously absent here. Instead, the vibe is “a lesser retread of our greatest hits.” Is it coincidence that Will Butler, once the most energetic member of Arcade Fire on stage, departed shortly after this album was announced? Was it already apparent that the pursuit of greatness has been replaced by competent fan service? Yes, Arcade Fire finally gave us what we want. But at what cost?