The love music, the breakup music, the occasion music—all are glorious pop traditions, however a very good doomsday music can do the work of all three. What connects David Bowie’s “5 Years” to Prince’s “1999” to Lana Del Rey’s “The Best” aren’t simply visions of civilizational collapse. All summon a way of final-prom-before-the-bomb craving via celebratory preparations, impressionistic lyrics, and deep reserves of creativity and empathy. Bo Burnham’s “That Humorous Feeling” joined the canon final 12 months by turning the distressing ridiculousness of Now right into a lullaby: “The live-action Lion King, the Pepsi Halftime Present / 20,000 years of this, seven extra to go.”
The generation-defining indie-rock veterans of Arcade Hearth have riffed on this recipe for his or her whole profession. Beginning with the band’s acclaimed 2004 debut, Funeral, songs of panoramic orchestration and stadium-ready choruses have conjured a way of joyful emergency—of connection achieved amid such crises as blizzards, tsunamis, colonialism, and having too many browser tabs open. That is the group that helped give the Black Mirror TV collection its identify with a 2007 music and gained the 2010 Album of the Yr Grammy with jams imagining warfare in American cul-de-sacs.
So when Win Butler sings “One final dance / right here on the finish of the empire” on Arcade Hearth’s new, pandemic-forged album, you already know you’re in for a humdinger. The nine-minute “Finish of the Empire I–IV” unfolds, per its title, in 4 sections—sodden piano elegy, woozy energy ballad, orchestral folk-blues, and eventually a return to piano, with plodding chords that recall John Lennon’s “Think about.” (Some variations of the album break the music into a number of tracks.) Within the vocal tone of a depressed Dracula, Butler croons about black holes, Jesus, and the ocean swallowing California. The end result is mainly a Substack reference: “I unsubscribe / I unsubscribe.”
That is insupportable to hearken to. The spark and originality current in the very best Arcade Hearth songs—and the very best apocalyptic pop—is absent each musically and lyrically. The issue isn’t simply that you just’ve heard almost each ingredient of this observe earlier than. It’s that the music’s scope, ponderousness, and normal lack of perception has the bizarre impact of trivializing the subject material. (This immortal 2016 tweet involves thoughts: “I really feel unhealthy for our nation. However that is great content material.”) Humankind’s worst nightmares are decreased to a script that elicits no feelings apart from embarrassment and, maybe, schadenfreude: You root for our survival merely to show Butler fallacious.
Most of We, Arcade Hearth’s sixth album, will not be as terrible as “Finish of the Empire I–IV,” however it’s unhealthy in the identical method as that music is. Pre-release publicity portrayed We as a reset after 2017’s poorly obtained—however fitfully great—All the pieces Now. The higher strategy to hear We is as the top level of a trajectory stretching again to 2004. Arcade Hearth’s music as soon as sounded revolutionary as a result of it was brash and bold—however that maximalism turned out to haven’t any ceiling. Through the years, the sweep of their songs got here to really feel grander and grander as lyrical themes acquired double- and triple-underlined. But the group nonetheless maintained some grit and complication—evocative phrasings, vexing musical selections—because it built-in contemporary types (nation on The Suburbs, disco on Reflektor). On We, the one concept Arcade Hearth seems to have left is to do what the band has already achieved, however louder and less complicated, as if for the again of the category.
Maybe, the group would possibly argue, a radical sense of readability guided the selection to have the primary two songs—“Age of Nervousness I” and “Age of Nervousness II (Rabbit Gap)”—unspool with inflexible rhythms, accumulating devices, and an unrelenting highlight on Butler’s lyrics. However the tracks find yourself making you are feeling such as you’re being sped to some landmark that you just by no means attain whereas the motive force delivers an undesirable sermon. “Born into the abyss / new telephone, who’s this?” Butler sighs on “Rabbit Gap” in a usually unmoving juxtaposition of abstraction and topicality. The one moments of intrigue are available backing refrains that the band’s different vocalist and songwriter, Régine Chassagne, sings with peculiar affectations. When she provides in “yeah”s on “Rabbit Gap,” they appear punctuated with a query mark, not the anticipated exclamation level.
Chassagne’s crystalline voice takes lead on the only real We observe which may survive this period, although it must overcome its title, “Unconditional II (Race and Faith).” Race and faith, fortunately, end up to solely be spicy synonyms for “physique and soul” (and a possible reference to New Orleans, Chassagne and Butler’s present base of operations). No matter—the music works due to the wavy interaction of hand percussion and sci-fi synthesizers. You possibly can lose your self grooving to this music slightly than worrying that, as with a lot of We, you’re being requested to grade an essay. The music’s companion observe, “Unconditional I (Lookout Child)”—think about George Michael’s “Religion” rewritten as a commencement speech—additionally has a sappy attraction.
Certainly, the album is greatest when it’s upbeat, as a result of catharsis slightly than evaluation is what Arcade Hearth does greatest. Regardless of many lyrical references to the omens of the 2020s—fevers, algorithms, TV reveals which have jumped the shark—the band hawks acquainted commentary: The one response to powerlessness is to search out companions with whom to bunker down or run away. Or as Butler asks on the closing, title observe, “Would you need to get off this journey with me?” Cuddly fatalism is definitely comprehensible in our current second of seemingly inexorable rights-rollbacks and struggle, to which the seductive response is resignation slightly than resistance.
Pull again and take into account We within the annals of apocalyptic storytelling, although, and also you would possibly glean some hope from it. The album partly takes its title from a century-old dystopian novel, and different perennial Arcade Hearth touchstones embody the basic prophecies of each the Bible and Ziggy Stardust. In these dire days, keep in mind that humankind has all the time dreamed of its demise—and that generally, artists merely venture their very own decline onto ours.