We don’t listen, we don’t crosses not a new album from the North American (Canadian) group Arcade Fire as we listen to other new discographic releases. From the beginning, we know that we have a special group there. Raw talent. Creators of music, but also creators of stories, of narratives, musicians capable of capturing, recounting and fixing, in songs, something of their time, of our era. Sensors. Revealers. Only the greatest artists have this quality.
So we mobilize something other than his ears as a columnist and a fan. We tell ourselves that we have to live up to the moment. And more about this band that was adored from an early age, even acclaimed – and at the time (in 2004) featured on the cover of Telerama, which was surprising. Beginnings of such intensity leave traces, happy memories… Is it the same for you when the discovery of a record out of nowhere is like love at first sight?
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So we decide to take our time. First, we turn around the disc, we hardly dare to go there. Then it’s the mistake: a first listening in the car, at low level. The driver lets out this murderous sentence: “It’s super soft, isn’t it? We are bored… ” We do not know what to answer him, we are afraid that he is right. Finally, we stop listening, it’s wiser. Arcade Fire deserves better than that.
Then finally comes the moment. Listen at full level. Go ahead, dear Win Butler, tell us your joys, your fears, your thrills, we are listening! A dialogue of 40 minutes and 18 seconds then begins between his music and the entire surrounding space. And at a high level of listening or with headphones, it doesn’t take long for the light to appear: Age of anxiety 1, the sound board that opens the album, is actually the exact opposite of a “soft piece”. It’s a total takeover. It is a political statement in the noblest sense. It’s a sinuous, demanding, proud song, which says: “stop us, listen to me, I have things to tell you”.
Unsurprisingly, the sound is huge – Arcade Fire loves studio work, they’ve worked hard on the subject and have continued to improve on it – but the essential is elsewhere: Win Butler speaks to us. In the ear. At human height. “We have entered the age of doubt, and I doubt that we will find the solution… Is it you or is it me? Age of anxiety… are you talking to me? » The theme is posed; this disc tells 2022, he lived the confinements, the isolation, the victory by technical knockout of the screens. The album title certainly displays a pretty WE (we?) in capital letters, but the subject wraps and unfolds around the question of the “me”, the “you”, the individual and all the crises, existential or not, which can derail it. In this sense, Age of anxiety 1 is the summary (the warning?) of the book that Win Butler begins to unfold before our eyes.
The drugs don’t work for me
Between the song phrases arise fragments of short, worried, panting breath. Then everything mixes, merges, the singing, the whispers, the hesitant melody. There is a real work of staging, of total occupation of the sound spectrum, and we say to ourselves that we have just entered an imaginary tunnel which invites us (politely but firmly) to lay down our arms and listen the texts of Butler the insomniac by simply closing his eyes. “In the age when nobody sleeps / And the pills do nothing for me”. Masterful debut of the album!
A second of pause and that’s it Age of Anxiety 2that is to say the sequence, the sequel pissed off, with its very Timburtonian subtitle, Rabbit Hole. Régine Chassagne, the female voice, the companion, the inspiration of Win Butler, joins him in the exercise of shortness of breath, confidences in the ear, and everything takes off, everything lights up. We thought we heard the spirit of New Order in the joyful pulsation of computer drums which gives its color to the music, but already, other surprise guests invite themselves on the circus ring. Who owns these synthesizers? To Human League, to Propaganda? And these powerful effects of echoes and delay (lay, lay, lay…), do they come from Jamaican dub or from the traveling brain of James Murphy? It doesn’t really matter. Arcade Fire is not just the happy fruit of its well-digested influences: it is a group of emblematic forties of the world who gave birth to them, pre-millennials at the crossroads of eras and aesthetics, children who have come to music by its organic form (acoustic guitar for Butler, musette accordion for Chassagne) then captivated by the endless possibilities of electronic music.
And even if their fourth album, Reflector, in 2013, had given the impression that the acoustic register interested them less, they have in truth never ceased to seek to give birth to their own synthesis, world before, world of today. In its own way, this sixth LP which almost looks like a “concept album” is the celebration of this patient ascent, with in particular nine minutes of unexpected beauty – End of The Empire I-III then End of The Empire IV (Sagittarius A*) – as a flag raised once the summit of the mountain is reached.
Bowie could have sung that
Brace yourselves before embarking on these nine minutes of liberated music. Stop everything, turn off the oven, switch off the phone. Remember where you were when you heard OKComputer of Radiohead for the first time. Remember to Karma Fontof Let’s Downand shivers that won you. Press play and… see you later.
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Bowie could have sung that, written that. Bowie loved Arcade Fire, Arcade Fire loved Bowie. The greats recognize the greats… Win Butler now has his card at the club; Thom Yorke greets him at the door, Sufjan Stevens walks him to the bar, Ray Davies, Andy Partridge and McCartney, from their table, smile and wave at him. And yet, absolute panache, the text of this double End of The Empire dantesque says just the opposite, and even sounds like a call for sedition: “I unsubscribe, I unsubscribe, This ain’t no way of life, I don’t believe the hype. »
It takes genius to build a song from a word, a concept, like “unsubscribe”. I unsubscribe, I leave, I quit. Win Butler can’t take it anymore, he can’t sleep anymore, this broken world everywhere that television spits in our faces 24 hours a day makes him want to kill, or maybe even commit suicide. He sings for all of us: he speaks of fed up, fatigue, disgust. THE BIG QUIT. “Heroes are selling you underwear / And little white pills for your despair / Little black space between the stars / Dream of crashing expensive cars” white for depression / Little black space behind the stars / Dream of planting exorbitantly expensive cars against the walls. »
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We come out shaken by this double-song and its double-text. Unsubscribe ? Not yet. Give us hope, Win Butler, tell us at least one nice thing, one nice thing, at least one! For any answer, Arcade Fire snaps The Lightning, again in two acts. Double jerk, tempo foot to the floor, bass and guitars in unison: it’s the youthful and rowdy combo of Funeral which returns as if time had no hold on anything – and damn that’s good. Trying to oppose the slightest resistance to this music of joy, music of fire, seems vain and lost in advance; just as over-intellectualizing it would run the risk of leading into an impasse.
The only regret, but it applies to everyone on the album: that the violins and more broadly all the synthetic decorum located in the heights of the sound spectrum are so often modeled, down to the note, on the vocal line – or on the one ‘Arcade Fire dreams of hearing unison from its fans during summer festivals. From such an ambitious group, we would have liked something musically finer, less coarse, less Coldplay (sorry)…
A musical wonderland
Would we have arrived at the end of this disc with uncertain contours? Not yet. The rabbit hole indeed led into the depths of a musical Wonderland with wide open borders! Get ready here Unconditional I then, oh surprise, Unconditional II. Phew, here is at least one song, a little disco-pop thing sung by Régine Chassagne, that we don’t like lessbut who knows, we might not be addicted to it next week… And then finally the finale with WE, the title song of the album. The post-modern angst have descended from their mountain, a campfire is crackling, the sun is disappearing behind the tall trees, and Win Butler has pulled out his old Martin guitar that sounds like Johnny Cash’s. In the background, we still pick up parasitic sounds, satellite in perdition and other 2022 incongruities, but the calm and the sounds of a wild nature not yet quite dead (age of eco-anxiety, have mercy on us) escort the upset listener towards the exit without rushing him, without rushing him… 40 minutes and 18 seconds later, Win Butler was heard. Loud and clear. We took full ears, full senses. Words, melodies, and then everywhere this energy of a modern rock band as wonderfully unique as it is inspired. And the silence that follows is still Arcade Fire.