On Arcade Fire’s last album, the critically maligned but briskly selling Everything Now, lead singer Win Butler sang about a young fan who wanted to kill herself listening to the band’s debut. It spoke to the outsize impact of 2004’s Funeral, the album that transformed the once-obscure Canadian band into indie royalty.
Years later, some would knock Funeral, a soaring and triumphant album that helped define the millennial experience as much as any other, as too apolitical, trading in vagaries as opposed to anything concrete. “God knows what any of it meant, but the way he sang it sounded like it meant something,” James McMahon wrote in NME on the album’s 15th anniversary.
It would be hard to apply that same critique to the band’s newest offering, WE. In many ways, WE feels like a counterpoint to Funeral. If the millennial experience was first defined by a soaring yet vaguely defined sense of purpose, a feeling that somehow, some way, things were going to get better, WE is finding peace with the fact that they’re not.
“It’s the age of doubt / And I doubt we’ll figure it out,” goes the album’s opening lyrics, describing life in 2022 as well as anything. The song, “Age of Anxiety I,” is a captivating bummer. When Butler and co-lead Reginé Chassagne sing about “a maze of mirrors” and “a hologram of a ghost,” they’re returning to the themes of Reflektor and Everything Now.
But on WE, Arcade Fire offers the next step: escape. “Gotta get the spirit out of me / This anxiety that’s inside of me,” Win and Reginé sing, and it’s hard not to nod along. But how to escape? And where to?
Not America, that’s for sure. Over the course of “End of Empire I-III” and “End of Empire IV (Sagittarius A*),” the band prepares for “one last dance / here at the end of the empire,” which feels akin to the band playing as the Titanic sank. They mourn how California and New York “used to be,” but now, at the end of the movie, they are “feeling uninspired, oh standing at the end of the American Empire.” Seeking respite, they turn to the mysterious region at the center of our galaxy, the supermassive black hole known as Sagittarius A*.
In the process, they also rid themselves of their worldly attachments. “I unsubscribe,” Butler says, and a chorus coos along in agreement. “Fuck season 5,” he says, no longer content to be strung along by streaming services. “Your heroes are selling you underwear,” he sneers in a nod to YouTubers. He’s done with everything. All he wants to do is see what’s on the other side.
When the protagonist reaches this black hole escape arc, Butler has said that “he finds that it’s himself and it’s everyone he ever loved and the lives of his ancestors. There’s nothing to escape, because it’s all the same thing anyway. Stories and films are always building toward this big conclusion and then the credits roll. And to me, the sentiment is, ‘Let’s just fucking do it again, with all of it—all the pain, all the loneliness, all the sadness, all the heartbreak. I just want to do it over and over again. Just run it back.’”
To escape, only to find oneself right back where they started. It’s a theme even older than Sullivan’s Travels, a movie where the protagonist tries to escape Hollywood in search of something real, but every attempt just finds him end up in the same place all over again. WE expands on that theme, looking at an era where Hollywood-style entertainment has permeated nearly every aspect of life.
But if the album begins paralyzed with anxiety, it ends trying to find something new and helpful. “I wanna give up / I wanna give down / Wanna give away everything in my hometown / Already know ‘I’ / I wanna know ‘We’,” Butler sings, before asking if he can do it all again. Wanting something more, wanting it all over again, wanting to transform into a stronger, more powerful collective. These urges don’t all make sense together, which is why it’s a good thing that Arcade Fire is making an album and not a manifesto. Desires contradict and fight each other on WE. The result is the best album the band has made in years.
David Meir Grossman is a writer living in Brooklyn. His Twitter feed is @davidgross_man.