Arcade Fire’s Cringeworthy Dystopia

The spark and originality present in the band’s best work are missing from its latest album.

Arcade Fire at Coachella 2022
Kevin Mazur / Getty

The love song, the breakup song, the party song—all are excellent pop traditions, but a good doomsday song can do the work of all three. What connects David Bowie’s “Five Years” to Prince’s “1999” to Lana Del Rey’s “The Greatest” aren’t just visions of civilizational collapse. All summon a sense of final-prom-before-the-bomb yearning through celebratory arrangements, impressionistic lyrics, and deep reserves of creativity and empathy. Bo Burnham’s “That Funny Feeling” joined the canon last year by turning the distressing ridiculousness of Now into a lullaby: “The live-action Lion King, the Pepsi Halftime Show / 20,000 years of this, seven more to go.”

The generation-defining indie-rock veterans of Arcade Fire have riffed on this recipe for their entire career. Starting with the band’s acclaimed 2004 debut, Funeral, songs of panoramic orchestration and stadium-ready choruses have conjured a sense of joyful emergency—of connection achieved amid such crises as blizzards, tsunamis, colonialism, and having too many browser tabs open. This is the group that helped give the Black Mirror TV series its name with a 2007 song and won the 2010 Album of the Year Grammy with jams imagining warfare in American cul-de-sacs.

So when Win Butler sings “One last dance / here at the end of the empire” on Arcade Fire’s new, pandemic-forged album, you know you’re in for a humdinger. The nine-minute “End of the Empire I–IV” unfolds, per its title, in four sections—sodden piano elegy, woozy power ballad, orchestral folk-blues, and finally a return to piano, with plodding chords that recall John Lennon’s “Imagine.” (Some versions of the album break the song into multiple tracks.) In the vocal tone of a depressed Dracula, Butler croons about black holes, Jesus, and the sea swallowing California. The culmination is basically a Substack reference: “I unsubscribe / I unsubscribe.”

This is intolerable to listen to. The spark and originality present in the best Arcade Fire songs—and the best apocalyptic pop—is absent both musically and lyrically. The problem isn’t just that you’ve heard nearly every element of this track before. It’s that the song’s scope, ponderousness, and general lack of insight have the weird effect of trivializing the subject matter. (This immortal 2016 tweet comes to mind: “I feel bad for our country. But this is tremendous content.”) Humankind’s worst nightmares are reduced to a script that elicits no emotions other than embarrassment and, perhaps, schadenfreude: You root for our survival simply to prove Butler wrong.

Most of We, Arcade Fire’s sixth album, is not as awful as “End of the Empire I–IV,” but it is bad in the same way as that song is. Pre-release publicity portrayed We as a reset after 2017’s poorly received—but fitfully wonderful—Everything Now. The better way to hear We is as the end point of a trajectory stretching back to 2004. Arcade Fire’s music once sounded revolutionary because it was brash and ambitious—but that maximalism turned out to have no ceiling. Over the years, the sweep of their songs came to feel grander and grander as lyrical themes got double- and triple-underlined. Yet the group still maintained some grit and complication—evocative phrasings, vexing musical choices—as it integrated fresh styles (country on The Suburbs, disco on Reflektor). On We, the only idea Arcade Fire appears to have left is to do what the band has already done, but louder and simpler, as if for the back of the class.

Perhaps, the group might argue, a radical sense of clarity guided the choice to have the first two songs—“Age of Anxiety I” and “Age of Anxiety II (Rabbit Hole)”—unspool with rigid rhythms, accumulating instruments, and an unrelenting spotlight on Butler’s lyrics. But the tracks end up making you feel like you’re being sped to some landmark that you never reach while the driver delivers an unwanted sermon. “Born into the abyss / new phone, who’s this?” Butler sighs on “Rabbit Hole” in a typically unmoving juxtaposition of abstraction and topicality. The only moments of intrigue come in backing refrains that the band’s other vocalist and songwriter, Régine Chassagne, sings with peculiar affectations. When she adds in yeahs on “Rabbit Hole,” they seem punctuated with a question mark, not the expected exclamation point.

Chassagne’s crystalline voice takes lead on the sole We track that might survive this era, though it will have to overcome its title, “Unconditional II (Race and Religion).” Race and religion, thankfully, turn out to only be spicy synonyms for “body and soul” (and a likely reference to New Orleans, Chassagne and Butler’s current base of operations). Whatever—the song works because of the wavy interplay of hand percussion and sci-fi synthesizers. You can lose yourself grooving to this song rather than worrying that, as with so much of We, you’re being asked to grade an essay. The song’s companion track, “Unconditional I (Lookout Kid)”—imagine George Michael’s “Faith” rewritten as a graduation speech—also has a sappy charm.

Indeed, the album is best when it is upbeat, because catharsis rather than analysis is what Arcade Fire does best. Despite many lyrical references to the omens of the 2020s—fevers, algorithms, TV shows that have jumped the shark—the band hawks familiar commentary: The only response to powerlessness is to find companions with whom to bunker down or run away. Or as Butler asks on the closing, title track, “Would you want to get off this ride with me?” Cuddly fatalism is certainly understandable in our present moment of seemingly inexorable rights-rollbacks and war, to which the seductive response is resignation rather than resistance.

Pull back and consider We in the annals of apocalyptic storytelling, though, and you might glean some hope from it. The album partly takes its title from a century-old dystopian novel, and other perennial Arcade Fire touchstones include the classic prophecies of both the Bible and Ziggy Stardust. In these dire days, remember that humankind has always dreamed of its demise—and that sometimes, artists simply project their own decline onto ours.