During Arcade Fire’s performance at Coachella last month, Win Butler got a little emotional. He introduced ‘Unconditional I (Lookout Kid)’, a tender single from the band’s new album, WE† Unlike 2017 Everything Now, the lyrics made no effort to meet our present moment of callous irony and online overstimulation. And unlike 2013 Reflector, no shiny synths or disco beats contrasting with the heart of his voice. Instead, the bandleader, who had turned 42 the previous day, got up with an acoustic guitar and sang serious advice to a youngster, asking the audience to join him with a childish, wordless chorus. Soon the sentiment turned out to be too much. He hid his face behind his hands and his bandmates stopped to let him collect himself.
From the start, Arcade Fire was built for moments when raw feeling overwhelms us. They recorded their debut album, 2004’s Funeral, in their early 20s, a time when our perspectives on death and aging, our parents and our hometowns, become more fragile and complex, when the divide between childhood and messier, serious adulthood feels dramatic and irreversible. Some of the band’s coping mechanisms now seem like youthful affections—the period costumes, the whimsical antics on stage—while others proved lasting. The core of the band remains the duo Butler and Régine Chassagne, who, in addition to being the married parents of a 9-year-old son, also write the songs and share the lead vocals, and their best songs still seem designed to be sung as loudly as possible, eyes close, from the heart of a huge crowd.
Defining these principles: WE, an album that reclaims the band’s trademarks after fighting them for ten years. Butler and Chassagne wrote the entire record on guitar and piano at their New Orleans home, making sure the bones were solid before presenting it to their bandmates. In the same way that vivid flashes of their childhood haunted their earliest songwriting, the pair now have their histories as collaborators flicker through the music: They’ve claimed pieces of the multi-part lead single “The Lightning” date back to Funeralwhile aspects of the equally multi-part “End of the Empire” first became a reality while in college.
Part of the band’s charm has always come from the buzzing, lived-in atmosphere of their records. They sounded too big for any room they played in: voices snapping into microphones, instruments crowding the stage. These songs, co-produced by Nigel Godrich, open up a wider space. There’s never been so much silence on an Arcade Fire record, offering a sense of dynamism that makes slow-build anthems like “Age of Anxiety II (Rabbit Hole)” and quiet twists like the title track feel equally memorable. Godrich draws attention to the negative space at the outer edges of the songs and adds a new vulnerable counterpoint to the sound peaks. Sometimes they sound shockingly intimate, even modest.