The last time we met Arcade Fire, they had unveiled 2018’s ‘Everything Now’ with a satirical ad campaign that confounded some fans (and perhaps that was the point). A subtler approach precluded the arrival of ‘The Lightning I, II’, the first release from their sixth album ‘WE’, which is due May 6.
For their first official single in almost five years (not counting ‘Generation A’, which they played on chat show special Stephen Colbert Election Night 2020), fans were sent cutesy postcards that contained the sheet notes to the song’s effervescent riff. They debuted the single at a low-key, exclusive small show in New Orleans on Monday evening (March 14). Even the title looked tantalising – the band’s highest peaks have often been the creations that come in pairs (‘Sprawl I, II’ from 2010’s ‘The Suburbs’) or sequenced (‘Neighbourhood #1, #2, #3, #4 from 2004 debut ‘Funeral’).
Few, if any, acts could write a two-track release as ambitious as this – ‘The Lightning I, II’ is epic in its scope and objectives. Consider the opening guitar strum, which cuts through the sound of falling rain like a flash of shocking light, or the images of the “mountain top” they seek refuge on, as the darkened skies turn “indigo”. Suitably dramatic, huh?
As on on the band’s second album, 2007’s ‘Neon Bible’, there are quick dashes of the uncertain spirituality that has long lurked in frontman Win Butler’s lyrics. He sings that “Jesus Christ was an only son” and that the “voices in the sky” – as well as a bolt of light – could lead them to some kind of salvation. The message, as ever, is somewhat murky, but you sense that they definitely want you along for the ride.
Parallels to ‘Neon Bible’s noirish thrill are apt – ‘(Antichrist Television Blues)’, anyone? – but the song’s success is built on the band’s consistently concise and inventive melodies. The twinkling piano motif that guides the tracks, even through the punkish ‘The Lightning II’, is a continuation of their elite songwriting: ‘Everything Now’’s title track soared off only a few notes on a piano, and the jaunty chords on ‘The Suburbs’ kept that titular track moving at a rolling pace, framing the story at hand.
The Lightning I, II’ will certainly hit a chord with long-time fans of the band. It somehow seems deeply heartfelt and slightly unnerving all at once; humongous in its sound, but familiar and intimate to those who’ve followed them for nearly two decades. It feels pleasingly like we’ve been here before, but never quite this far into Arcade Fire’s modus operandi.