“WE” just fits for the album title. Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler has trotted out the following George Orwell quote when speaking about the inspirations and general construction for the band’s reestablishing—and sometimes triumphant—sixth album: “Never use a long word where a short one will do. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.”
Whereas 2017’s overstuffed Everything Now felt like a musical run-on sentence about the crippling inward spiral of the almighty algorithm, WE is the group’s first critical self-edit. It doesn’t avoid occasional goofy lyrics or overly sentimental moments, but the band is back to pointing in the right direction again. Butler and crew unsubscribe from Western culture’s insatiable hunger for unlimited content and end up actually selling otherwise clunky phrases on paper like “I unsubscribe” and “fuck season five” on the four-part “End of the Empire I-IV.”
Butler said WE was partly inspired by concept albums such as Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, which gave its multi-part tracks space to expand, contract, get low, and walk around a bit before coming back to the melodic hook. Butler wrote during lockdown with his partner Régine Chassagne, and although there are still some very long tracks on the record, you can tell the band hacked out a lot of material to arrive at WE’s svelte 10 tracks and 40-minute runtime. It’s felt the most on the joyously ascendent singles “The Lightning I, II” and “Unconditional Kid I, II,” and even on the quieter moments like the title track. WE often finds a veteran band charging atop vigorous, surging melodies and not being afraid to just lean into the groove again.
Despite all the changes and extra baggage the band’s endured over two decades together, WE bottles enough of the group’s suburban angst and festival magic they first cornered in the mid-2000s. Butler speaks to the themes and pandemic emotions tightly wound around each economical lyric choice on “Age of Anxiety I, II,” but the band also lets the synthetic moments feel earned this time. Butler laments in the opening track about what ails him during the pandemic (“Fight the fever with TV, and the pills do nothing for me”). The song truly takes off over a deep synth groove and heavy breathing as Butler and Regine sing, “I gotta get this spirit out of me.”
There are two contrasting themes for this reestablishing Arcade Fire release: the first half of WE is pure anxiety, a song cycle haunted by the inward thoughts of an era tainted by the black mirrors in our pockets. Naturally, the album cover features an extremely close photograph of an eye by French artist JR with airbrush color tinting by Terry Pastor (it’s reminiscent of Scott Walker’s Scott 3 cover art, an album which tells a similarly anxious story). The second part of the tale is the community reflected in that eye, the real gold to cling to at the end of a panic attack. As Butler proves with Arcade Fire, your support group can allow you to survive outside when the body finally seeks an outlet for raw emotion. You learn to approach wholeness by embracing the we just beyond the black mirror.