After I saw the Canadian band Arcade Fire on tour in London in late 2010, I began my review of the gig by quoting Psalm 98: “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all the earth: make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise.” My abiding memory of the evening was that it was fun. Despite the apparent solemnity of many of the act’s songs — several of which had been taken from their debut album, Funeral, and revolved around death and despair — the concert had a celebratory and upbeat aspect.

It concluded (as...

After I saw the Canadian band Arcade Fire on tour in London in late 2010, I began my review of the gig by quoting Psalm 98: “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all the earth: make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise.” My abiding memory of the evening was that it was fun. Despite the apparent solemnity of many of the act’s songs — several of which had been taken from their debut album, Funeral, and revolved around death and despair — the concert had a celebratory and upbeat aspect.

It concluded (as virtually all of their shows had done) with a euphoric singalong of what has become their signature song, the cathartic “Wake Up.”

A decade later, matters have changed. The world is in a considerably more anxious state than it was. We have had Covid, Trump, rocketing inflation, Ukraine and endless mass shootings in schools. David Bowie — Arcade Fire’s great champion and occasional collaborator — is dead. Modern music has turned into a TikTok-pandering morass of Autotuned idiocy, the unexpected but welcome greatness of Taylor Swift aside, and a piquant and witty lyric in a Billboard 100 hit is about as likely bon mot from Joe Biden. We are beset by mediocrity, and its dominance cannot be resisted any more, merely accepted.

The return of Arcade Fire is not just welcome, but overdue. Their previous album, 2017’s Everything Now, was a strange misstep for the band. It was a selection of solipsistic and often irritating songs that were so deeply in love with their own metaphorical conceit — the whole “we’re a rock band, but we’re also a consumer product” thing, which was original when The Who released The Who Sell Out in 1967 — that they neglected to have anything so vulgar as tunes or thought-provoking lyrics attached. So the new release, We, was both highly anticipated and almost feared. What if the most interesting rock band since Radiohead — who seem similarly to be sitting out modern life — had stagnated a mere five albums into their career?

Thankfully, We represents a significant return to form. It is certainly Arcade Fire’s finest album since 2010’s The Suburbs, possibly even since 2007’s mighty Neon Bible. Produced by Radiohead’s regular collaborator Nigel Godrich, it comes soaked in all the major record label extravagances that you might expect, including sumptuous orchestral arrangements, a guest appearance by Peter Gabriel and a lengthy gestation period that has incorporated studios in New Orleans, Maine and El Paso. It’s a blessedly short album, too, lasting a mere forty minutes over nine songs. It’s only marred by one of those cursed thirty-second ambient pieces that bands seem to consider obligatory to pad out a running time, and which can be helpfully skipped over in silence on all good streaming services.

Because Arcade Fire likes to serve up their muscular atmospherics with a healthy side order of pretension, there are oddities here. The album is named after a Russian dystopian novel by the author Yevgeny Zamyatin and contains songs entitled “End of the Empire IV (Sagittarius A*)” and “Unconditional II (Race and Religion).” The centerpiece, “End of the Empire,” is a multipart epic orchestral ballad that owes a substantial debt to the Beatles and John Lennon, lasts for nearly ten minutes and features the band’s lead singer and co-songwriter Win Butler declaiming “We unsubscribe/ Fuck season five/ And anyway/ The clothes don’t fit me right.”

This is determinedly different from the unchallenging, bland work of their peers. It is therefore unsurprising that We has failed to replicate the commercial success of the band’s earlier albums, selling a comparatively trifling 32,000 copies in the first week. Although the members of the band are hardly old, mostly being in their thirties and forties, they might as well be Mozart and Beethoven compared to the cheerfully insipid likes of Ed Sheeran and the ever-popular Justin Bieber. It is unlikely that Arcade Fire cares, as on this evidence they have greater ambitions in mind: to be the last of the great art rock bands.

The presence of Gabriel on We is far from a coincidence. Although much of his post-Genesis work trod a careful line between experimentalism and mainstream commercial pop, his earlier music was unapologetically strange. After his departure from Genesis in 1975, to be replaced by the singing drummer Phil Collins, he was able to pursue his own avenues, and his previous uncompromising success meant that he no longer had to subjugate himself to mainstream expectations: he marched to the beat of a very different drummer, and still does. And all of Arcade Fire’s significant previous collaborators — Bowie; David Byrne; the producer and LCD Soundsystem front man James Murphy — are quixotic figures who established themselves well out of kilter with whatever the mainstream of their day was, before bending it to their will.

When Arcade Fire first arrived on the scene in 2004, playing tiny gigs to increasingly hysterical reactions, many of the leading art-rock figures of the twentieth century were quick to offer their approbation, and to figuratively pass on the torch. From Lou Reed to Bryan Ferry, well-dressed men (always men, it would appear) in their fifties and sixties could be seen hovering discreetly in corners of London and New York concert halls and clubs, gently tapping a well-cobbled shoe and shuffling in tailored clothes to the beat.

There were other acts of the same period that attracted similar excitement. The Killers were briefly thought of as being an all-in-one combination of the Pet Shop Boys and the Smiths, rather than another Springsteen tribute act, and Elton John offered suitably regal patronage to the excitable New York disco group Scissor Sisters. But it was the fiery Arcadians who took their place at the Valhalla of contemporary art rock music, and who continue to occupy their celestial perch, even as the ghosts of now-departed greats still haunt them.

They are not a band for all comers. The initial warmth and sense of communal joy that permeated both their recorded output and their live performances has somewhat receded, to be replaced by a colder, more considered approach. Butler seems to be intent on making himself the music industry’s Christopher Nolan: an impeccably cerebral, unapproachable figure whose considerable intellect is expressed in fashions that alternate, apparently at random, between the profound and the banal.

It seems strange that the same man (along with his co-songwriter, his wife Régine Chassagne) can write something as elegantly witty and universal as the Prufrock-alluding “We Used To Wait” from The Suburbs, and something as crass and quotidian as “Infinite Content” from Everything Now. The latter came complete with wretched lyrics: “Infinite content/ Infinite content/ We’re infinitely content.” One has the horrible vision of Butler smugly pouring himself a matcha smoothie after coming up with that line, believing that he has managed to say something deeply profound. He hasn’t.

It is a relief, then, that We largely eschews such dire portent, preferring to concentrate on the personal, and this is where the album becomes both warm and direct. The song “Unconditional I (Lookout Kid)” is the sweetest, and simplest, thing that the band has recorded in years, a paean of paternal love that comes on like a cousin of the White Stripes’ “I Think We’re Going To Be Friends.” As Butler sings of “a lifetime of skied knees/ And heartbreak comes so easy,” there is also the reminder that “a life without pain would be boring.” This is not so very far from “Wake Up” and its weirdly euphoric statement that “Our bodies get bigger, but our hearts get torn up/ We’re just a million little gods causing rain storms.”

We has proved, once again, that Arcade Fire is still capable of a joyful noise. While they have little, or nothing, to offer the Gen Z types of today, it is equally true that Bowie’s music both offended and confused the vast majority of the good, upstanding citizens of the world when it was released. (“Who the hell is this man who’s singing about being ‘a rock and rolling bitch for you’?”) Here, there is a solid commitment to fighting the good fight, to producing music that is, at its best, euphoric and universal and beautiful, and representing a heroic last stand for a kind of artistry that is now an endangered species. The music industry often seems as if it is chucking what remains of sanity and excitement on an intellectual dumpster fire. Time, perhaps, to stand back and hope that Arcade Fire can restore some sanity to the world, even now.

This article was originally published in The Spectator’s August 2022 World edition.