Are you up for a heavy insight?

That’s what you’ll get when you listen to Rowan Williams, the Welsh Anglican bishop and former Archbishop of Canterbury. Here’s an example of Williams’ wisdom as quoted by Jeremy Begbie in Sounding the Depths: Theology Through the Arts:

Art … can’t properly begin with a message and then seek for a vehicle. Its roots lie, rather, in the single story or metaphor or configuration of sound or shape which requires attention and development from the artist. In the process of that development, we find meaning we had not suspected; but if we try to begin with the meanings, they will shrink to the scale of what we already understand: whereas the creative activity opens up what we did not understand and perhaps will not fully understand even when the actual work of creation is done.

In trying to scratch the itch of my dwindling enthusiasm for the music of Arcade Fire, I rediscovered this passage, which was once printed poster-sized on the wall of my office at Seattle Pacific University. Reading it again was illuminating in the context of my mixed feelings as WE, the latest album from the Canadian indie rock giants Arcade Fire, engulfed me in lush, layered currents of sound.

The early run of Arcade Fire albums — the seven-track, self-titled debut in 2003; the rough and rowdy rock breakthrough of 2005’s Funeral; 2007’s profound (and dare-I-say prophetic?) Neon Bible; and then the triumphant double-album The Suburbs in 2010 (that catapulted them to the dubious status of “Grammy-winning artists”) — established this creative Montreal-based collective as the latest generation in a great and principled rock pantheon, blessed by gestures of admiration and approval by U2 and Bowie and Springsteen. Their Funeral anthem “Wake Up” became a rallying cry and a mission statement for a generation, and I remember singing my heart out along with the joyous audience at a U2 show when the band chose that  song as a prelude to their show, which proved to be as exciting as anything that would follow in the live performance when the boys from Dublin took the stage.

Since then, there have been definite highs that have kept the fires of my admiration alight, even though there have been almost as many head-scratcher tangents that have dialed down that heat and that glow. 2013’s Reflektor had some true inspiration in its mythic sweep, but overall it came to seem bloated and uneven. 2017’s Everything Now deserved some applause for the bright and sparkly sounds of its stylistic change-up and the band’s evolution into a dance-band, but the explicitness of its earnest and grim social commentary felt a bit heavy-handed, and the severity of it started to become tiresome. It felt as if the spirit of adventure was alive in everything but the lyrics — and for this listener, lyrics are as important as any other element of a band’s greatness. Unlike their colleagues in The Decemberists, who continue to explore new sounds, new subjects, and new stories, Arcade Fire was leaning into diagnosing and paraphrasing cultural afflictions. Just as U2 loses their edge (no pun intended) when they prioritize getting hooks and hit singles instead of leaning into the mystery of artistic inspiration, so Arcade Fire seemed to be losing that sense of unpredictability and excitement that comes from opening themselves to discovery instead of concerning themselves with messages.

So here we are in 2022. We seem to have arrived at the reality of anxiety, tech-saturation, and existential despair prophesied by Radiohead on OK Computer and Kid A. The world has changed dramatically in ways too numerous to count. And here comes that band that originally captured my imagination with an underdog’s audacity, a reckless and dangerous new sound, and a flair for storytelling drawn from suburbia or ancient mythology. Have the last five years inspired them with new discoveries?

There’s good new and bad news.

The answer is no — they haven’t discovered a bold new sound. That’s actually the good news.

Comprised of only seven tracks (like their first record), WE sounds like… well… a fusion of sounds from all of the previous albums. And it’s produced in an array of dazzling colors and textures by the couple at the core of the band — Win Butler and Régine Chassagne — in collaboration with the great indie-rock genius Nigel Godrich (whose superpowers have been vital to the successes of Radiohead and Beck). Together, they move us gracefully from solitary piano in the vein of John Lennon to that familiar Funeral-style arena-rock roar. It’s the kind of record that I’m sure will sound dizzying in Dolby Atmos. And some brief-but-faint backing vocals from Peter Gabriel are a nice surprise — even though they make me wonder why, if he was available for this, he wasn’t featured more prominently. (And when-oh-when will Peter Gabriel give us new music of his own?) So, if you’re tuning in to 2022’s version of Arcade Fire because you love their sound, you probably won’t be disappointed.

But the bad news is that WE delivers their shallowest, clunkiest, most on-the-nose writing, as if they’re now signing their emails with the title Voices of a Generation. The needle is tilting away from Poetry and leaning into Preachy. It feels like an album that “the kids,” if they are paying attention to it, will roll their eyes at in the same way that they roll their eyes at me when I say anything about the attention-fragmenting influence of smartphones.

Consider the inch-deep skepticism of the opening track, which sounds a bit too much like an old man grumbling about social media:

Fight the fever with TV
In the age where nobody sleeps
And the pills do nothing for me
In the age of anxiety

When I look at you, I see what you want me to
See what you want me to
When you look at me, you see what I want you to see
What I want you to see

By the measure of Rowan Williams’s wisdom, this really sounds like a record that began with a list of themes, of “timely and relevant” cultural complaints, and then went looking for music that would support them. I winced when one of the album’s most affecting anthems suddenly unleashed a refrain of “I unsubscribe.” Such laments over the conformity and compromises of consumer culture (so heavily targeted already on Everything Now), and such yearnings to “get off the ride” of the collapse of Western civilization, seem so much more poignant in the poetry, the vivid and surreal imagery, and the specificity of storytelling on Elbow’s recent album Giants of All Sizes (2019) than they do here. For decades, U2, R.E.M., and Radiohead have explored this present consumerist darkness with so much more imagination, painting such striking and compelling narratives and imagery. WE‘s track list reads like a table of contents in a collection of sermons: “Age of Anxiety,” End of the Empire,’ “Unconditional (Race and Religion).” When Butler sings for a disillusioned youth who “can’t stop crying” and who feel like “another lost alien,” I just want to go back two decades and listen to OK Computer.

That’s not to say that the music won’t grow on me — their albums often have.

And there are moments here that have my number, flashing bright reflections of U2’s gospel and R.E.M.’s sonic youth pep-talks like “Drive.” Remember when Automatic for the People opened with Michael Stipe chanting “Hey, kids — rock and roll / Nobody tells you where to go”? Check out these instructions from Butler on “Unconditional 1”:

Lookout kid, trust your soul
It ain’t hard to rock n’ roll
You know how to move your hips
And you know God is cool with it
Some people want the rock without the roll
But we all know, there’s no God without soul…

I mean, it’s pretty cool to sing along with those lines. So I hope my friend and mentor David Dark will forgive me, considering he recently tweeted this:

I cannot deny that this album is born with the DNA of records that were formative for me. Maybe I’ll fall for it little by little as I spend more time with it. After all, I ended up playing Everything Now a lot more than I anticipated I would after a first listen. (Here’s a flashback to my review of that one.)

But there’s something about sharing a sense of discovery along with the artists as an album unfolds. There’s something about getting caught up in mysteries, images, and stories, and then arriving at the edges of insight together, that I find so much more engaging than having insights paraphrased and presented to me. Just as I became disenchanted with Christian rock in the late ’80s for how obvious almost everything seemed, how unadventurous, how redundant, and how derivative, so I find myself thinking about Arcade Fire themselves when I get to that “unsubscribe” refrain. And when they say they’re naming their kid “Sagittarius A,”  the not-so-subtle Radiohead reference seems less like a creative inspiration ad more like another cool-kid “Do you see what we did there?”

No, I won’t unsubscribe on Arcade Fire. Or, to borrow another lyric, I won’t quit on them — and I don’t think they’re quitting on us. Their music is still pretty compelling. It just so happens that I agree with their sentiments on culture, politics, the devolution of America, and the hope to be found in the power of unconditional love.

But I want to have the experience of wonder with their music, again. I want to feel I’m plunging into the mystery of artists caught up in a vision, not a commencement speech. Perhaps it’s time they took a break and signed up for some poetry classes.