What happened to Arcade Fire’s blissful sincerity? 2013’s excellent Reflektor may have been a high point for the band in terms of unfettered ambition, but the record’s pervading sense of sarcasm and self-awareness was also dangerously counterintuitive. Funeral, Neon Bible, and The Suburbs were all beautifully highfalutin albums that channeled big, universal sentiments without cracking even the slightest smirk. Reflektor, on the other hand, thumbed its nose at the notion of cultural inauthenticity. On tour, band members would frequently don oversized, shabbily constructed paper mache replica heads, as if to shout, “We may be earnest, but we’re also nihilistic goofballs.” For a few moments, it was nice to see them take the piss out of themselves. But, at the same time, it forced listeners to consider how far this inward critique was meant to cut. Did the band feign any of the emotions on Funeral? Neon Bible? The Suburbs?
Policy, the debut solo album from Arcade Fire multi-instrumentalist Will Butler, is as messy as that paper mache routine. Only eight songs long, it seems to touch upon every idea Arcade Fire has had up to this point, from the early chamber pop days to the recent turn towards cerebral, cynical dance rock. Luckily, Butler, given the expectations that come with sharing a last name with Arcade Fire leader Win, can write a solid song. But on the whole, Policy confounds.
Much of this has to do with Butler’s lyrical perspective, which seems to come from a place of ironic detachment. Sometimes the glibness works, like on groovy standout “Anna”, which is buoyed by slick, well-timed bursts of sloppy piano and Motown sax. “Take out the knife/ Sharpen it twice/ And count all the money,” he squeaks like a con artist high from the thrill of a recent crime.
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Occasionally, the lack of specificity makes his words feel like weirdly compelling mantras. On the dancehall vamp “Something’s Coming”, which could pass for a lost Reflektor track, that titular “something” is almost too vague. “Something’s coming/ Oh, is it the end?/ Something’s coming/ I don’t know/ But it sure’s gonna be the beginning,” he whispers, never cluing us in as to what any of it means. As a result, Butler’s lyrics often feel superfluous, as if he’s only singing them because he thinks he’s supposed to. This runs contrary to how brother Win’s lyrics often work in Arcade Fire songs. Like Will, he’s prone to writing lines that are laughably ham-fisted or obvious. But Win makes you believe in everything, even the junk. This is undoubtedly linked to the fact that he has a massive rock band at his disposal to stand firmly behind his occasional half-baked couplets. Will only has himself. Either way, the lyrics on Policy don’t always feel urgent, even if his points of satire — capitalism, religion, politics — are discernible.
Butler may still be developing as a lyricist, but his grasp on melody and production is palpable. The driving “What I Want” recalls the irate pummel of the The Suburbs’ “Month of May” with a stronger hook, while “Take My Side” feels like a bluesy, looser update of “Ready to Start”, even if it’s almost ruined by Butler’s cringeworthy pledge to “beat the shit out of some birds” if he ever found himself able to fly. The best sequence on the album, though, comes during the chorus on folk punker “Son of God”, when a group of backup vocalists latch onto Butler’s words and sing with him seemingly out of nowhere. “I’ll be good,” they all shout, as if a battalion of preachers joined together for a spur-of-the-moment hymn.
Policy may just be too slight to be successful, forcing its shortcomings to be amplified even if there are, in fact, many things to enjoy about this record. The album’s lasting impression will likely be the frustrating disingenuousness that comes with its satire. It’s hard to believe that the same Butler that made Policy contributed to one of the more enduring and emotionally affecting albums of the past 20 years, Funeral, though let’s not forget that we’re living in the “reflective age.” Arcade Fire’s bubble of blissful sincerity has popped, but at least there’s audio evidence. Or was that just a reflektor, too?
Essential Tracks: “Anna”, “Son of God”, and “What I Want”