On their 2005 Vertigo tour, U2 came on stage to the strains of Arcade Fire’s Wake Up. It felt like an act of benediction on the part of stadium rock’s undisputed kings, a public equivalent of the fabled “Bono talk” in which U2’s frontman is reputed to approach young bands and offer congratulations and advice in a welcome-to-the-board-of-directors style. Here was a band made of similar stuff to early 80s U2 – born out of alternative rock, but with ambitions far beyond it; socially conscious; apparently powered by religious or quasi-religious fervour – and capable of doing what U2 did commercially by the end of the 80s.
Arcade Fire clearly weren’t averse to the idea. They dealt almost exclusively in grand statements with anthemic songs frequently divided into multiple parts, big sounds and spectacular shows. The bigger they got – awards, arena gig livecasts directed by Terry Gilliam, albums entering the charts at No 1 – the more their ambitions adjusted accordingly: 2013’s Reflektor was an 85-minute double album, inspired by Kierkegaard and featuring a guest appearance from David Bowie, accompanied by a feature-length making-of documentary and their own US TV special.
Then their ascent went drastically off-piste with 2017’s Everything Now, a state-of-the-world address issued in 22 different vinyl versions. It was preceded by an ostensibly satirical promotional campaign that was crushingly unfunny – overdoing the joke, as the humourless are wont to do, it seemed to go on for about five years – the reviews were bad, US sales faltered. Five years on, we find Arcade Fire reclaiming lost ground. Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich is on board, along with Father John Misty, Portishead’s Geoff Barrow and Peter Gabriel. Thankfully, they’ve dramatically reined in the musical experimentation of Everything Now. If you think it’s counterintuitive to praise an artist for being less ambitious, you evidently didn’t hear the results of that ambition last time around: let’s just whisper the words “cod reggae” and “rock artist trying to rap” and leave it there.
In its place is some of Arcade Fire’s most straightforward music to date, reliant on tried-and-tested techniques for rousing vast crowds: chugging synthy pop-rock somewhere between the balls-out commercialism of the Killers and the more opaque approach of the War on Drugs (Age of Anxiety I, The Lightning I, II); bass drum-thumping folky singalong on Unconditional I (Lookout Kid). There’s also that venerable 21st-century standby, a ballad that begins on solitary piano evocative of the Beatles’ Hey Jude or John Lennon’s Imagine and gradually swells into string-laden, air-punching territory. It’s very well-trodden territory, but the episodic, nine-minute End of the Empire I-IV pushes it to a new level, borrowing not just the ambience of Imagine, but the melody of its opening line – a ballsy move given the litigious times we live in.
There are a couple of relative curveballs – the sparkly dance-pop of Age of Anxiety II (Rabbit Hole) and Unconditional II (Race And Religion) are pretty well done. The piano hook on Age of Anxiety I is genuinely hooky, the dramatic increase in tempo midway through The Lightning I, II authentically exciting. But it also feels oddly functional rather than head-spinning: new material that’s enough to hold an audience’s interest in between the hits. In fairness, it’s an improvement on Everything Now, an album that was packed with new material almost guaranteed to get the audience fighting for the exits.
The one thing that hasn’t been improved since last time is the lyrics, which bullishly ignore the theory that Arcade Fire are at their best when focusing on the small-scale and personal – an appealing contrast to a widescreen musical approach. Instead they stick fast to the blueprint of Everything Now, an album that had worked out that the internet has a bad side and kept telling you about it in peevish, think-about-it-yeah? terms. Once more, everything appears to have been written in a style that evokes either a terrible amateur theatre troupe or a ramalama punk band making a point about society. “Rabbit hole, plastic soul… born into the abyss, new phone, who’s this?” runs Age of Anxiety II (Rabbit Hole). “I unsubscribe, this ain’t no way of life, I don’t believe the hype … fuck season five,” offers End of the Empire I-IV. Even Unconditional I (Lookout Kid), a sweet meditation on parenthood and the album’s one example of the small-scale approach – “a lifetime of skinned knees and heartbreak comes so easily” – is blighted by a burst of hectoring cobblers about how you can’t rock without roll and there’s no God without soul.
Still, no one ever kept a stadium audience rapt with the oblique subtlety of their wordplay. If We isn’t a return to the standards Arcade Fire reached on their debut album Funeral or 2010’s The Suburbs, it’s an improvement on its predecessor, and quite possibly enough to avert a slow slide down the festival bills. Those, you suspect, may have been its objectives, in which case: job done.
This week Alexis listened to– Ithinkso
Lo-fi and ragged take on a two-step garage beat, that unexpectedly turns midway through into something noticeably jazz-influenced. Intriguing.