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“It’s the age of doubt / and I doubt we’ll figure it out,” Win Butler sings, in the opening moments of Age of Anxiety I, the first track on Arcade Fire’s sixth album, WE.
He sounds battle-worn, backed by percolating piano and subtly insistent synth jabs. The song drifts and soars with U2-evoking grandeur, before turning to the dance floor. There is release, as he and creative/life partner Régine Chassagne trade off chants of, “Gotta get this spirit out of me / this anxiety that’s inside of me.”
In the climax, Butler confesses crying meaningless tears and feeling like an alien. Party on, Arcade Fire style.
Age of Anxiety II (Rabbit Hole) features a club beat, synths by Portishead’s Geoff Barrow and wry lyrics about the trappings of modernity.
Welcome to the Montreal-born rock band’s pandemic record. Conceived by Butler and Chassagne in New Orleans, in the early days of lockdown, fleshed out with their bandmates months later and co-produced with Nigel Godrich (Radiohead), WE is a two-sided, seven-song rumination on loneliness and the healing power of love.
It contains some of the most spare, vulnerable moments we have heard from the group in years. Written initially on guitar and piano, the album finds Butler in singer-songwriter mode, moving more intuitively than we’re used to.
He conjures John Lennon and David Bowie on the post-apocalypse epic End of the Empire I-IV, a nine-minute saga that shifts from piano-bar/acoustic guitar lament to swaying ’70s singalong and rock-opera expanse.
The mood lights on side two. Sparks fly on first single The Lightning I, II, an us-against-the-world anthem that has flashes of Tom Petty before being infused with a familiar rock’n’roll jolt of Arcade Fire urgency.
Butler sounds as carefree as he’s ever been on Unconditional I (Lookout Kid), an openhearted offering of life advice to his nine-year-old son, punctuated with whimsical “Do-do do-dos.”
Chassagne steals the show, as she is wont to do, with the disco-fied club track Unconditional II (Race and Religion), an emancipatory tune about coming together, in love and on the dance floor, with perfectly tempered backup vocals from Peter Gabriel .
“It’s joy and it’s union,” she chirps, “your sense of rhythm / how you take communion / it’s a door to the divine.”
It all winds down with the title track, an acoustic guitar-strumming hymn (that begins with a “Prochaine station” sample culled from the Montreal métro) in which Butler whispers about getting down on one knee, giving away everything and getting away from it there.
It’s an arresting moment that encapsulates the band’s continuing evolution, two decades into a remarkable career that has seen them go from underdogs to indie icons.
Arcade Fire has never lacked for ambition, and that continues to be the case here. But it sounds more effortless, this time around. Even as Butler, Chassagne and crew swing for the fences, they let the music take its course.
Is WE good? Oui.
Rating: 4 stars out of five
Arcade Fire’s WE will be released on Friday, May 6.
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