On an album called We, it’s little surprise Arcade Fire prefers pairing its songs.
The first of four couples across 10 tracks, “Age of Anxiety I” and “Age of Anxiety II (Rabbit Hole)” form something like a pop suite. Singer Win Butler names, then tries to purge, the culprits and causes of our common anxiety—namely, isolation and materialism—while calling out paltry solutions, including the way we tend to self-medicate with pills and late-night television.
These twinned songs spiral through the many moods of anxiety, manifesting desperation through Eurythmics-style synths and Butler’s hot, staccato breath. At the same time, they reflect resignation with plaintive piano and blissed-out disco beats. Late in the first movement, the band attempts an exorcism: Butler’s wife and bandmate Régine Chassagne floats the idea, calling as if from another realm. Butler then repeats her incantation in full voice: “Gotta get this spirit out of me / This anxiety that’s inside of me.”
Anxious energy underpins the band’s catalog, now six albums deep: anxiety born of religious trauma and family dysfunction (Neon Bible); anxiety experienced while coming of age on cul-de-sacs ripped straight from early Spielberg movies (The Suburbs); anxiety found at the end of every consumer’s rope (Everything Now).
Perhaps this is the secret of my affection for Arcade Fire; not anthemic melodies as I once thought and hoped, but the alarms buried and ringing from deep within its songs. As someone with a generalized anxiety disorder, the low-grade panic that runs like a bass line through the band’s work rings too true. Lead me down a path toward “the end of the American empire,” as the group sings later on We. Then make me watch us act like reverse Good Samaritans along the way—leaving one another behind, failing to bind each other’s wounds in favor of continuing down our chosen political and theological paths. At this point, anxiety replaces my breath.
We reels toward a solution—or, at least, a salve—for shared dread. Some of Arcade Fire’s proposals sound better than others. Earlier attempts at diagnosing and transcending the sins of our age—especially on Everything Now—crashed like cold-to-the-touch cliches. Here, all the reaching sounds more relatable. Instead of coming across like distant cultural commentary, these songs feel lived-in, working through anxiety from inside out. We might be a mess at times, but it’s really Arcade Fire’s mess. And yours and mine.
The low-grade panic that runs like a bass line through the band’s work rings too true.
Butler first tries simply logging out of modern life. On “End of the Empire IV (Sagittarius A*),” he sings “I unsubscribe . . . she unsubscribes” over a melody evoking John Lennon. But, as most of us know, leaving our social-media app of choice often takes more than a few clicks.
The band lands somewhere special with “Unconditional I (Lookout Kid).” Ostensibly a ballad for Butler and Chassagne’s son, the song travels like a late-night radio dedication to every listener. They counter the characters of Neon Bible, who approach their children with exacting terms and inevitable consequences. On that album, children pay the price for the religious devotion of parents who Butler accuses of “working for the church while your family dies.” Or they become the pawns of stage moms and dads grasping for vicarious celebrity. “You know that I'm a God-fearing man / But I just gotta know if it's part of your plan / To seat my daughters there by your right hand,” he sings at one point, standing in for a particularly desperate father.
On “Unconditional I (Lookout Kid),” Arcade Fire’s central couple thinks of their kid first. They promise themselves to their son, not as infallible guides but as a steady, loving presence: “I give you everything / I give you my heart and my precious time.” Against a sing-song melody, Butler writes a permission slip excusing his son from the world’s great expectations; affirms the motions of his boy’s heart, mind, and body; and establishes grace enough for mistakes and “a lifetime of skinned knees.”
Chassagne’s voice enters the mix to underline these sentiments, each lyric erasing a cause of anxiety. She and Butler disprove myths of perfectionism and introduce their child to God—not as a disapproving force but a kind, watchful eye looking upon creation and calling it good:
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
The song expresses my intentions as a parent, embodies what I long to hear in the throes of anxiety, and echoes God’s words delivered through John: “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear.” Whether standing at the end of an empire or the end of yourself, everyone needs to hear they are loved as they are, and that such love never dries up.
Many of us know how difficult it is to appreciate the perfection of God’s love; anxiety and deep-seated fear rob us of its fullness for now. And so it is with Arcade Fire. The only problem with “Unconditional I (Lookout Kid)”? It ends after four minutes, and 33 seconds, while an age of anxiety carries on. But the song exists as a down payment on future love, hope for any kind of future at all. Assurances of unending love push anxiety from life’s center toward its margins. They baptize fear in eternal reality. The song’s rock-and-roll parents offer this kind of love to their kid. A God who runs undignified to greet prodigal sons and daughters promises it to us.
We concludes with its title track and a lovely question: “When everything ends, can we do it again?” In context, the song sounds out a desire to relive every moment with your beloved, not trading a single thing. Knowing the state of our world and tracing the small scars across our souls, the question gathers gravity. Will we—could we please—have a chance to do this all again, free of everything anxiety stains and steals?
God answers, “Yes.” Our lives are now a mist, but in a new Heaven and Earth, anxiety will become the vapor. You will become most yourself. I’ll be free to experience his love as perfect. Fear and anxiety aren’t driven out yet—not fully. But look out kid, it’s coming.