Arcade Fire has always sounded at once representative of and defiantly out of step with its own time. It’s easy to slot the group into the aesthetic of the so-called New Sincerity, a post-9/11 ideology that rejected the previous micro-generation’s embrace of hip cynicism and postmodern irony. Arcade Fire, by definition, cared, Numbness and ennui were its boogeymen. Overall the first decade of its run, the Canadian band released a series of loose concept albums that targeted time-tested opiates of the masses — organized religion on “Neon Bible” in 2007, conformist living on “The Suburbs” in 2010.
Still, there was something backward-glancing about the group — not necessarily a bad thing. Arcade Fire was at its sharpest when it was trying to puncture the inherited mythology of the midcentury past. But it was never quite as successful when it shifted its gaze toward the present and began raging against the machines, first on its ambitious 2013 album, “Reflektor,” and again on its less inspired 2017 followup, “Everything Now.”
Which is why it’s unfortunate that the band doubles down on this approach throughout much of its sixth album, “We,” an LP that wishes to be seen as a course correction but still shares many of its predecessor’s thematic fixations. We are living through an age of anxiety and the end of an empire, we are reminded on songs with grand, explanatory titles like, well, “Age of Anxiety I” and “End of the Empire I-IV.” The first is a searching, forlorn opener with rhythmic backing vocals that huff and puff shallowly, as though they can never quite catch their breath. The nine-minute, multipart suite “End of the Empire” has a few delightful twists, but is ultimately airy and vague, seeking to channel the sort of modernized vision of impending apocalypse that artists like Phoebe Bridgers (“I Know the End”) and Lana Del Rey (“The Greatest”) have recently pulled off more succinctly and sharply.
“Age of Anxiety II (Rabbit Hole)” has some dazzling musical moments, like when a brooding synth line suddenly explodes into the evil twin of New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle.” Win Butler and Régine Chassagne co-produced “We” with Nigel Godrich, known for his work with Radiohead, and their collaboration makes the more up-tempo material pop.
There are a few instances, though, when head-scratching lyrics take the listener out of what should be an ecstatic moment. The catchiest and most upbeat number on “We” is “Unconditional II (Race and Religion),” a neo-80s pop gem sung by Chassagne with backing vocals from Peter Gabriel. The beat and melodic line are hypnotic, yet the song is built around the hook “I’ll be your race and religion” — a weighty, loaded (or maybe just awkward) statement that is never unpacked enough to make the listener want to sing along.
Aside from the galvanizing lead single, “The Lightning I, II,” which many heralded as a return to form, the band sounds most comfortable on the “We” songs that speak in a folk-rock idiom, like the understated closing title track . The sweet, rolling “Unconditional I (Lookout Kid)” addresses Butler and Chassagne’s 9-year-old son, imparting to him their own hard-won life lessons while reflecting on the limitations of parental guidance. Call it attentive-dad rock. “There are things that you could do that no one else on earth could ever do,” Butler sings warmly, “But I can’t teach you.”
The antidote for the age of anxiety that this record proposes is relatively straightforward: to opt out of the flat and depersonalizing world of the digital rabbit hole and reinvest in IRL personal connection. “I wanna get wild, I wanna get free,” Butler sings on the subdued final track, accompanied by a pastoral-sounding 12-string guitar. “Would you wanna get off this ride with me?” The stakes feel a bit low, though, because I’m not entirely convinced he was ever on the ride to begin with.
Most of the most potent recent art about the agony and ever-diminishing ecstasy of being too online — Patricia Lockwood’s brilliant novel “No One Is Talking About This,” the last few albums by the British pop group the 1975 — has spoken the language of the internet vividly, with a specificity that suggests its authors are not entirely apart from the culture they’re critiquing, and that is precisely what makes their eventual protestations palatable. Arcade Fire’s depictions of our techno-dystopia, instead, feel more distant and diffuse.
“I unsubscribe,” Butler sings repeatedly throughout “End of the Empire,” and Chassagne underlines it with her backing vocals until the line’s fleeting cleverness wears thin. But what, exactly, are they relinquishing? Despite its occasional moments of brilliance, “We” too often finds Arcade Fire stuck in a digital maze of its own design, ignoring the fact that it’s always sounded more at home off the grid.