Arcade Fire returns to an old sound for its new record

It’s obvious from the first minute of “The Lightning I, II”, a vigorous and pressing single from Arcade Fire’s excellent sixth album, “WE”, that the band have returned – lavishly, ardently – to the powerful sound that once made its live shows look like tent reruns. If you’ve ever driven a little too fast on the freeway – all your earthly stuff stuck in the trunk, cheap sunglasses, hair blowing in the wind, rebooking it from place to place – you’ve probably an idea of ​​breathless exhilaration Arcade Fire specializes in. It’s hard to think of any other group that’s so formally concerned (or so supernaturally adept) allowing full-body catharsis, and it’s hard to imagine another moment in which this brand of hyper-intimate, in-depth absolution sweat might be more welcome.

Yet for a brief time, Arcade Fire, formed in Montreal in 2001 and led by the married duo of Win Butler and Régine Chassagne, with Richard Reed Parry, Tim Kingsbury, Jeremy Gara and, until recently, Win’s brother, Will Butler – moved away from grandeur in favor of a more cerebral, slightly scolding approach. The band’s previous record, 2017’s ‘Everything Now’, was an indictment of digital culture and our thirst for ‘infinite content’ – worthy opponents, certainly, except at that time the toxicity of these forces already sounded like old news. (Radiohead asked many of the same questions on “Kid A,” which was released in 2000.) Most people know instinctively that staring at Instagram for hours on end, eyes dead and growing sour, is less meaningful than spending time with family and friends. The lukewarm critical reception of “Everything Now” foreshadowed, in a way, a change in our collective tolerance for an art that was too expressly didactic. These days, no one wants to be taught a lesson, especially by the rich and famous. (I thought of “Everything Now” when, at the start of the pandemic, actor Gal Gadot released a bizarre montage of celebrities singing snippets of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” a video so pointless and poorly met that Slate later called it “one of the worst things that ever happened.”)

“WE”, produced by Butler, Chassagne and Nigel Godrich, is less obvious and more compassionate, and better exploits the musical strengths of the group: the tender and penetrating voice of Butler (he became one of the great rock singers of his generation ), the band’s love of Haitian rara (strongly percussive and often haunting parade music), and their talent for writing catchy, propelling anthems that make you feel like you’re climbing a hill, throwing your fist in the air air, and cartwheel to the other side. The band are adept at building tension by crafting a simple yet powerful melody – Chassagne is particularly adept on a synthesizer – increasing the volume, picking up the pace and facilitating a sudden, loud release. It’s not a new trick, but when it hits, boy, it hits.

In 2020, there were concerns about the type of creative work that might appear as a result of the covid-19 pandemic. “WE” was recorded between February 2020 and mid-2021, in New Orleans, El Paso and Maine’s Mount Desert Island, during one of the most spiritually and politically tumultuous times in recent memory. . Perhaps more than any album released since, “WE” feels like a comprehensive and dynamic document of that era, a Pandemic Record in the truest sense; it’s frenetic, exhausted, painful and, on occasion, overloaded with hope and joy. The first half, “I”, deals with how humans tend to suffer and break down in isolation; the back half, “We,” honors the ecstasy and absolution of sustained connection. Butler and Chassagne, who co-wrote these songs, tend to make “The Family of Man”-style observations, and with less prominent singers the ideas can sound soft or platitudes. Here they feel exciting. In the video for “The Lightning I, II”, Butler plays acoustic guitar with “call your mompainted in black letters on the front. I suspect I’m not the only one who quickly found herself grabbing the phone.

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Sometimes Butler’s language becomes more abstract and playful, like on “Age of Anxiety II (Rabbit Hole)”:

Hardy har har
chinese throwing star
Lamborghini Countach
Maserati sports car

The verse is also indebted to David Byrne, Beck and country singer Billy Ray Cyrus, who also sings the oddly melodious line “Maserati sports car” in his remix of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road”. reckless to take an eighties-influenced synthesizer jam with Peter Gabriel and title it “Unconditional II (Race and Religion)”, as Arcade Fire does here? (Race Street and Religious Street intersect in New Orleans, where Butler and Chassagne bought a house in 2014.) “I’ll be your race and your religion, you’ll be my race and my religion,” Chassagne sings in a low voice. high and round on congas. , djembe and agogô bells. I never imagined that I would lazily hum the phrase “race and religion” while tossing groceries into my shopping cart. “This love is not a superstition,” adds Chassagne. “Body and soul united.

At this point, Arcade Fire’s musical influences are well analyzed: the band gleaned drama and strategic restraint from artists such as David Bowie, U2 and Bruce Springsteen. But it also relies heavily on themes drawn from literature. Butler said “WE” was inspired in part by “We,” a dystopian science fiction novel by Russian writer Yevgeny Zamyatin, first published in English in 1924. “We” is often considered the model of “George Orwell”. 1984” and “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley, also books in which bold individuals challenge the control of a heartless state. In a note Butler shared with fans ahead of the album’s release, he wrote, “My grandma read me a book when I was little that had the word ‘WE’ stamped on its cover in 1920s broken gold leaf.” It made him think about what unites us as human beings. “It is the ‘ONE’ of Marley, the Buddha and Abraham,” he wrote. “It’s love at first sight / of our magical mutual creation / it’s the root.”

Butler also said he spent decades pondering Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poem “I Am Waiting,” from the best-selling 1958 collection “A Coney Island of the Mind.” Butler borrows the phrase “Age of Anxiety” from one of the poem’s stanzas (“and I wait / for the age of anxiety / to fall dead”), using it to title two tracks on “WE “. It’s easy to see Ferlinghetti as a spiritual ancestor of Butler – both are interested in what Ferlinghetti calls the “renaissance of wonder”, the bold and insistent claim of our humanity against capitalism, technology, our own vanity and fear. Butler’s Rebellion can range from funny (“We unsubscribe/Fuck season five,” he sings on “End of the Empire I-IV,” a multi-part epic reminiscent of the scope and vigor of Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android.” ) to the grave (“We can do it, baby, please don’t forsake me,” he implores on “The Lightning I”).

Before his death last year, aged 101, Ferlinghetti was filmed reading his poem ‘The world is a beautiful place’ in a back office of City Lights, the bookstore and publishing house he co-founded in San Francisco in 1953. Ferlinghetti’s light singsong cadence gives the poem a playful stroll. He writes about life’s thrills (“and walking around / looking at everything / and smelling flowers / and goose statues / and even thinking / and kissing people and / making babies and wearing pants”) and their inevitable interruption (“Yes / but good in the middle of it / comes the smiley / undertaker”). Arcade Fire is also about how our lives are momentary and fleeting, and what we can do before we die. “WE” culminates in a pleading coda. “When It All Ends / Can We Start Again?” Butler asks, his voice soft. Knowing the answer may not be enough to detach us from our cursed devices or make us more responsible stewards of our planet, but it’s a helpful reminder nonetheless. The undertaker, she always smiles. Or, as Butler puts it, “Heaven’s so cold / I don’t wanna go there.” ♦

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