A host of contemporary psychologists, philosophers, and scientists have argued convincingly this century that free will is an illusion. Sometimes I think there’s no better proof than the inexorable cycles of consensus opinion in pop culture. We’ll take as our test subject the career arc of the prominent indie-rock-whatever-that-means band Arcade Fire. In fact, “we” have no other option, as the preset operation here is a review of their new album, called We.
The group, led by married couple Win Butler and Régine Chassagne, originated as a ramshackle ensemble in the early-2000s Montreal music scene, then burst out with its critically and fannishly adored first album, Funeral. Their live shows were renowned for their ecstasies of carnivalesque communion. In 2011, Arcade Fire won the Grammy for Album of the Year for the band’s third album, The Suburbs, to which Butler’s first reaction, like much of the general public’s, was “What the hell?” For the balance of the 2010s, like many artists who’ve hit the zenith of their starting trajectory, Arcade Fire began exploring alternate sounds. First, on 2013’s Reflektor, there was experimental dance-rock blended with idioms derived from Chassagne’s Haitian roots; then, on 2017’s Everything Now, a more ’80s-ish synth-pop-disco fusion.
Especially with the latter record, most of the audience that once loved Arcade Fire seemed to really hate it. “Their self-reflexive mood and half-baked critiques have landed all over the record’s grooves,” tutted Pitchfork. It was unclear if people hated Everything Now itself so much as the ham-fistedly satirical publicity campaign for it. This barrage of fake press releases and websites and fidget spinners and other gambits was meant as social criticism around the time of Donald Trump’s election. Perhaps unintentionally, it also read as the band’s conflicted reaction to having transferred from independent label Merge to the major label Columbia Records, part of corporate behemoth Sony.
Even without that clumsy lead-in, though, I’m not sure Everything Now would have drawn a better reception. As I argued then, the Arcade Fire of 2017 essentially could not win. They were the target of a mini-rerun of anti-disco backlash from listeners who thought they’d squandered what made them special. But had they stuck to the tried and true, they would have been kicked around for repeating themselves. Spin lamented that Arcade Fire once promised to be “the natural successors to U2,” while PopMatters mourned that they had become U2. Taking a step back, the moment was also the nadir of popular appetite for the whole concept of a rock band, which could not have seemed more outdated. What did the world want from Arcade Fire? It wanted them to go away. And for the next five years, mostly, they did.
In comparison, in 2022, Arcade Fire can hardly seem to lose. Rock no longer seems like a dinosaur that refuses to die off, but a welcome throwback to bygone days. Witness the glowing response to the neo-post-punk charms of the young U.K. band Wet Leg, for example. Nostalgia for the early 2000s is well underway. Arcade Fire has regrouped (and to a lesser extent degrouped, as Win Butler’s multi-instrumentalist brother Will recently amicably departed). The band’s central couple spent the pandemic writing reams of new material at their New Orleans base, then reunited with their geographically dispersed comrades to record last year with producer Nigel Godrich, best known for his work with Radiohead among others. And We is being greeted with fanfares as a comeback.
In reviews, the New Yorker declares that “the band returns to [its] exhilarating anthems.” A New York Times headline says Arcade Fire has “found a way back.” Pitchfork reports that the album “reclaims the band’s trademarks after a decade spent fighting against them.” And Stereogum leads off its “premature evaluation” with the single-line paragraph, “Now this is more like it.”
My question is exactly what that “it” is. All of Arcade Fire’s albums are uneven. None since Funeral, including We, has focused primarily on the chant-along crowd exercises for which they’re best known. But neither have any been without such moments: Search out videos of their recent, still-ecstatic live performances, and hear how they incorporate material from Reflektor and Everything Now. (Butler introduced the title track of that album in London the other week by smirking, “Fuck the haters.”) We, meanwhile, includes plenty of continuations of the electronic sounds of those records—most blatantly on “Age of Anxiety II (Rabbit Hole)” and on my favorite song on the album, “Unconditional II (Race and Religion).” Those textures persist elsewhere here, too, albeit folded into more classic-rock-forward structures, and thereby a bit domesticated.
What’s more, plenty of Butler’s lyrics here carry on with the kind of kneejerk socio-technological critiques that drew so much scorn on Everything Now. His mix-and-match references to social media and phones can make it sound as if a Marshall McLuhan bot infected the timeline after your grandpa clicked on a bogus link.
On Everything Now, a few of the most dire examples came unfortunately early in the track list. But at least they passed by quickly and were part of interesting-failure sonic experiments. The worst offender on We, by contrast, is a nine-minute-and-17-second suite that forms a sinkhole in the middle of the album, “End of the Empire I-IV.” (That would be the American Empire, natch.) There, supposedly apocalyptic Beatles-meet-Bowie symphonic gestures meet the refrain, “I unsubscribe.” While that’s not all there is to the song, patches of it sound at once like a tweet about Netflix, a discard from the songbook of the National, and the overreaching of a dad who’s read one too many “big idea” bestsellers. Indeed, the meanest but funniest quip about Arcade Fire I’ve seen lately was in a (positive!) show review by Dorian Lynskey in the Guardian, who said the combination of the effervescent Chassagne with the self-serious Butler is “as if Robyn has formed a band with Jonathan Franzen.”
None of this is meant to say We is a bad album. In fact, swap out that “Empire” twaddle for something else—for instance, the B-side of the single version of “The Lightning I, II,” a protest song the band premiered in 2020 called “Generation A”—and I’d happily declare it a fantastic one. By turns it thrills, challenges, transports, bops, and soothes. I simply can’t hear it as innately superior or more authentically Arcade Fire than the album the world seemed to take such glee in trashing.
Neither am I exempting myself, claiming I’m the only one liberated enough to hear the two records correctly. I’m probably partly following another preprogrammed cultural reflex, i.e., being contrarian. On a more micro level, I am a Canadian whose social circles overlap somewhat with Arcade Fire’s. I have been following them since before Funeral was made. And unlike the majority of their fans and critics, I’m a handful (maybe a fistful) of years older than the band members. So I’ve always observed them as an outgrowth of a real-life community, rather than looked up to them as the generators of an imagined community to come. That viewpoint, not special aesthetic discernment, likely predetermines my reactions to their evolution.
By contrast, Pitchfork’s Sam Sodomsky, in his perceptive and not uncritical We review, envisions Arcade Fire as “the same empathetic songwriters who made you cry to your iPod in your childhood bedroom.” To a large degree this seems to be the “more like it” that the comeback talk orbits around. On Funeral and The Suburbs, childhoods at risk of adult compromise and betrayal were a central theme, as they perhaps too often were in turn-of-the-millennium indie rock. On We, that topic resurfaces, but this time from a parental perspective, as on the lilting “Unconditional I (Lookout Kid),” a sweet musical letter to Butler and Chassagne’s 9-year-old son about life’s necessary and ultimately rewarding trials. (The nod to Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” in the subtitle is one of many musical and verbal quotations these true music lovers plant along their way.)
The group’s core audience has moved past the stage of bristling at the band’s seeming separation from what had been invested in them, and they are now ready to settle into a mutually mature homecoming. It’s a commonplace oedipal dynamic between artists and fans that underlies many proclamations of the “return to form”—it’s not that the artists stop changing, but that their listeners are ready to let them.
In some senses, We may see Arcade Fire themselves going through that cycle. Butler has framed it as an album in two parts, the first titled “I,” the initial songs of socio-technological critique, and the second called “We,” which focuses more on family and community. (The “Lightning I, II” pair is the transition between them, seeming mired at first rhythmically, and then breaking into an exhilarating, liberating dash.) It’s ironic that Butler cites Yevgeny Zamyatin’s early-1920s Russian dystopian novel We (the album name is officially styled in all caps, as the book’s title often is) as an inspiration, because that book is an attack on the nascent anti-individualist conformism of the Soviet state. When Zamyatin writes, “ ‘We’ comes from God, ‘I’ from the Devil,” that’s the oppressor speaking.
Arcade Fire’s take on that dichotomy here is comparatively incoherent, although that’s fitting, since it’s a false dichotomy in the first place. Still, the problem when a panoramic rock band like Arcade Fire makes music about the all-seeing panopticon controlling society is that the scope of the sound inadvertently constructs a simulacrum of the panopticon and makes the listener feel subject to it. This was the dead end that “progressive” arena rock ran into in the first place, see for example Pink Floyd’s The Wall. But Arcade Fire also holds the escape code.
Zamyatin, like George Orwell after him in 1984, presents romantic love as a potential flight vector, as the subversive crack in what the state poses as an absolute contradiction between happiness and freedom. And Arcade Fire, which grows out of Butler and Chassagne’s intimacy as well as other family bonds (chosen and otherwise), has always implicitly suggested that kind of love as an antidote to the deadening and distorting pressures of society. It’s effective because the idea of the rock band itself, at least as far back as the Beatles, has served as a utopian allegory, a model of a voluntary, noncoercive union that enables the members to be part of a greater whole without giving up their selfhood.
In practice, as the behind-the-music stories of countless bands, including the Beatles, tell us, it’s a lot more complicated. But like free will, it may be an illusion humans can’t do without, given the alternatives. Ultimately, we need the eggs. While Arcade Fire may not excel as sociological songwriters, the second half of We, like all their best music, shows they already know the way out of these cycles, which is to sing as openly as they can to and about each other. The rest will speak for itself. Well, that and: Please, at long last, could Régine sing lead on a few more songs per album? At those moments, I always readily surrender my will, as well as my won’t.