During Arcade Fire’s appearance at Coachella last month, Win Butler got a little emotional. It featured “Unconditional I (Lookout Kid)”, a sweet single from the band’s new album, WE. Unlike 2017 Everything now, his lyrics made no effort to address our present moment of desensitized irony and online overstimulation. And unlike 2013 Reflector, no bright synths or disco beats contrasting with the heartbeat of his voice. Instead, the bandleader, who had turned 42 the day before, stood with an acoustic guitar and sang serious advice to a youngster, asking the audience to accompany him with a childish refrain and without words. Soon the feeling turned out to be too strong. He hid his face behind his hands and his comrades stopped to let him collect himself.
From the start, Arcade Fire was designed for those times when raw feeling overwhelms us. They recorded their first album, 2004 Funeral, in our early twenties, a time when our perspective on death and aging, our parents and our hometown, becomes more fragile and complex, when the gap between childhood and more messy and serious adulthood seems dramatic and irreversible. Some of the band’s coping mechanisms now resemble youthful affectations – the period costumes, the whimsical onstage antics – while others have proven enduring. The core of the group remains the duo Butler and Régine Chassagne, who co-write the songs and share lead vocals in addition to being the married parents of a 9-year-old son, and their best songs always seem designed to be sung like as loud as possible, eyes closed, in the heart of a huge crowd.
These principles define WE, an album that takes up the marks of the group after a decade spent fighting them. Butler and Chassagne wrote the entire record on guitar and piano at their home in New Orleans, making sure the bones were established before presenting it to their bandmates. Just as bright flashes of childhood haunted their early songwriting, the pair now let their history as collaborators sparkle through the music: They claimed that tracks from the multi-part lead single “The Lightning” date back to Funeralwhile aspects of “End of Empire”, also multi-part, first materialized when they were in college.
Part of the band’s charm has always come from the buzzy, lived-in atmosphere of their records. They sounded too big for every room they played in: voices clipping into microphones, instruments crowding the stage. Co-produced by Nigel Godrich, these songs open up a wider space. There’s never been so much silence on an Arcade Fire disc, delivering a sense of dynamics that renders slow-building anthems like “Age of Anxiety II (Rabbit Hole)” and silent bends like the title track. feel equally important. Godrich draws attention to the negative space at the outer edges of songs, adding a newly vulnerable counterpoint to sonic peaks. Sometimes they sound intimate, even humbly.