WE - Arcade Fire

Arcade Fire are a shadow of their former selves on an indifferent and unremarkable return.

I remember the first time I heard Arcade Fire.

The year was 2005, I was in my second year of secondary school and our History teacher Ms. Roland was out sick so we had a free class. I was passed an earphone for a friend's iPod (cheers Luke), he hit play on 'Rebellion (Lies)' and from the very moment I heard that violin solo at the bridge, I was completely hooked. I spent the next weeks cramming all the Arcade Fire songs I could fit onto my tiny Creative Zen MP3 Player before taking the plunge and buying Funeral and the Us Kids Know EP on CD from Tower Records on O Connell Street, listening to both religiously for months and years on end, all the way until Neon Bible arrived in 2007 and I finally got to witness their incredible live show for the first of many times in October of that year at Phoenix Park.

Arcade Fire have been the soundtrack to my life in a way that very few bands have, from my early to late teenage years playing out to Funeral and Neon Bible, before The Suburbs set the tone for the summer of 2010 when I started my first job. When I moved away from home for my final year of university in the autumn of 2013, Reflektor was there to provide a familiar and comforting sound for so many days and nights away from home. When I returned to Ireland from Spain in the summer of 2017 with my future wife by my side, Everything Now dropped right at the end of that July - but this time I didn't play it on repeat.

In fact, I hardly played it at all.

It took a couple of listens to Arcade Fire's fifth record to recognize the depressing drop off in quality from a band that hadn't put a foot wrong to date. Gone was the unifying spirit and universal emotion that informed the band's best work, replaced by an exhausted electropop anomaly that found the group hopelessly weighed down by the political and social strife of the late part of the 2010's decade.

It was understandable if nonetheless upsetting, and not just for me. The thing is that Win Butler, Regine Chassagne & company hadn't just been making some of the most essential music of my life over this time, but of the 21st century at large - so after the dreary sounds of Everything Now suggested the beginning of a decline for one of the world's greatest modern rock bands, it was only natural to assume heightened expectations upon the announcement of a sixth album arriving this year after a full five year wait. On the contrary however, the rollout of WE has felt as much of a non event as the album itself, with a collective shrug greeting a work that merits about as much.

With a grand total of 5 songs split into various movements across a mere 40 minutes, WE doesn't as much feel like a culmination of work spread across the past 5 years as much as a small collection of tracks spread thinly and stretched out generously to just about merit a full length release, while never feeling like a complete work or a true match to Arcade Fire's previous standard - certainly not one on the level of a band that have made their name with epic's like the sweeping hour long fairytale of The Suburbs or Reflektor's cinematic scope and movie length runtime.

WE kicks off on a note somewhere between Reflektor and Everything Now both in terms of sound and quality, with 'Age of Anxiety' offering up a sufficiently stirring opening double act that gently begins with nostalgic waves of piano and strings before springing to life on a pulsating electronic groove that rises above Win Butler's ever so unfortunate hang ups on the perils of modern life, as the 42 year old remains in perennial despair owing to the evils of social media addiction and our tech overlords.

Despite the band skillfully navigating the same tiresome lyrical rethreads that doomed Everything Now in the early stages of WE, Butler's morbid outlook on modern society is a handicap throughout the record once again. 'End of the Empire' is a bridge too far with no saving grace from a musical standpoint as the frontman decries the American dream on an uninspired instrumental outing for the band as a whole, who still seem puzzlingly oblivious to the fact that these repetitive themes are nothing but a detriment to a group that have always thrived on uniting fans with messages of triumph over adversity in their best moments, most famously on a debut that celebrated life in the face of overwhelming death.

'The Lightning' is the closest we get to classic AF territory, with a Springsteen indebted baroque rock centerpiece that blasts through sweeping orchestral rock movements and briefly brings WE back to life on what is probably the band's best single since 2014, but there's no meaningful follow up on 'Unconditional I (Lookout Kid)'. A perfectly pleasant if altogether forgettable acoustic ballad, 'Lookout Kid' aims for '7 Kettles' but comes closer to 'Hey Ho' on potentially the most generic and safe track of the band's career. Sequel 'Unconditional II (Race and Religion)' should be Chassagne's moment to steal the show on the penultimate moment of the record as she has done on so many occasions throughout the band's lifetime ('Sprawl II', 'Haiti', 'In The Backseat') but this mild, meandering electropop groove is in no real hurry to get anywhere fast and falls firmly at the bottom of lead performances from the frontwoman.

'WE' is a perfectly fitting end credits sequence to play out the record in that its another anonymous affair, one which will leave you wondering how you've managed to come to the end of a ten track record without feeling like you've heard much of anything at all. As this whimpering conclusion to what is perhaps the most indifferent album of Arcade Fire's discography wrapped up my first listen to WE, Spotify radio automatically queued up 'Neighbourhood 1 (Tunnels)' to transport me back to the blisteringly brilliance of Funeral's majestic opening moments.

It was then that I realized just how sorely lacking in emotion the preceding 40 minutes had been, in spite of WE containing a less than offensive collection of tracks as a whole and almost certainly enough moments to lift it above Everything Now. It's hard to make that kind of music happen spontaneously, and perhaps it's time to face the sad truth that those days are over for a band that are unquestionably one of the greatest artists to exist this side of the millennium, but just no longer great anymore.

5.5 / C-

Best Tracks: 'Age Of Anxiety (Rabbit Hole)', 'The Lightning I', 'The Lightning II'

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