Review: Arcade Fire – Everything Now

 

Originally, I planned to write this review like any other. I was going to talk about how Arcade Fire went from being a relatively unknown Canadian indie rock band in the mid-2000s to winning Album of the Year at the 2011 Grammys for their excellent album The Suburbs. I was going to mention how they started with a baroque pop style that featured extensive strings, accordion, and even pipe organ a couple times before moving into a more traditional rock style that flirted more and more with electronica with 2013’s Reflektor. But mostly, I was going to discuss the unusual lead up to the band’s fifth full-length album, Everything Now.

Then Arcade Fire preemptively reviewed their own album on the fake website “Stereoyum,” an obvious dig at music site Stereogum for publishing an article titled “Remember When Arcade Fire Were Good?” and in anticipation of the site’s “Premature Evaluation” review section panning the album.

As it turns out, Arcade Fire are fairly decent at reviewing themselves. They figured that that reviews would describe their new electronic sound and compare it “favorably but slightly dismissively” to LCD Soundsystem, would dedicate some time to discussing how Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter produced the album, and would mention the album’s unusual tracklist with three songs called “Everything Now” and two called “Infinite Content.” And to be as meta as possible, Arcade Fire’s preemptive review even mentioned the album’s bizarre marketing campaign, which in its not-at-all-subtle critiques of consumerism portrayed the band as part of a corporation called “Everything Now,” peddled $109 branded fidget spinners, and yes, included preemptive reviews.

While all this makes it seem like Arcade Fire are incredibly aware of themselves and how their new album will be treated, they faltered with one prediction – in their words, the band thought reviews would “compare Everything Now unfavorably to both Funeral and The Suburbs, while calling it a bounceback after Reflektor.” Unfortunately for Arcade Fire, Everything Now isn’t a “bounceback” at all, and stands as the first Arcade Fire album that’s only “good.”

If you only heard Reflektor’s title track and the single “Afterlife,” you’d be forgiven for thinking that the album was almost entirely based in electronica and dance music, when it reality it was much more varied. All four singles leading up to Everything Now’s release were once again best categorized as electronic or full of dance beats, but this time there’s no bait and switch – the album actually is a near-complete foray into these styles. This is sure to dismay the traditionalists who miss Arcade Fire’s orchestral-based roots, but isn’t uncharted territory for the band. Aside from the two aforementioned Reflektor tracks, The Suburbs featured the standout “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains),” which for all intents and purposes was synthpop. And if an indie titan like Bon Iver could go from traditional to electro, who’s to say Arcade Fire can’t do the same?

The electronic and dance stylings that permeate Everything Now are actually fairly enjoyable, granted you already appreciate these genres independent of Arcade Fire. The title track is one of the band’s most upbeat songs, driven by a Belle and Sebastian-esque piano melody and plentiful hi-hat to give it a slight disco feel. Sure, it tries a little too hard to be anthemic with its shouts of “everything now!” at the chorus, the sound of a crowd singing the melody towards the end places it firmly in stadium rock territory, and the pygmy flute sounds more than a little out of place, but it’s otherwise a great introduction to the album. “Signs of Life” is likewise a step into disco, punctuated by strings and horns as lead singer Win Butler sing-talks throughout. Both songs vaguely echo Reflektor’s title track, albeit with a more concise and pop-oriented manner.

The electronica on Everything Now is more varied than its disco-rock moments, and is also more likely to make you think “this is Arcade Fire?” For instance, “Electric Blue” is the most straight-up synthpop song the band have made, and could potentially be mistaken as a CHVRCHES song from a distance. Coincidentally, Régine Chassange takes the lead vocals on this one just as she did on “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains),” but she sings in such a high register that she’s almost unrecognizable at first. “Creature Comfort” has very heavy electronic instrumentation with a somewhat darker feel, making it sound either like the revival of an 80s new wave group or the soundtrack to an arcade game. “Peter Pan” revolves around an intriguing backtrack that’s best described as “electro-dub,” combining synthesizer rumbles with a trudging reggae beat. Toward the end of the album, both “Put Your Money On Me” and “We Don’t Deserve Love” apply electronic touches in a more delicate manner, balancing the band’s baroque pop roots with their newer direction to edge towards folktronica. All of these tracks have instrumentation worthy of some praise, yet at the same time their sheer volume of this new style makes appreciating Everything Now less a question of “do you like Arcade Fire?” and more “do you like synthpop or disco-rock?”

Surprisingly enough, the weakest parts of Everything Now are the tracks that don’t fully embrace the band’s new style. “Chemistry” takes the electro-dub of “Peter Pan” and makes it 100% gaudier, adding electric guitar riffs at the chorus for some reason. The result is arguably the worst thing Arcade Fire have made, sounding like some sort of Frankenstein’s monster of  the forgettable tracks “Flashbulb Eyes” and “Joan of Arc” from Reflektor. Then, the back-to-back of the fast-paced garage rocking “Infinite Content” and the slower, country version of the same song “Infinite_Content” are likely to just make listeners think “what the hell was that?” Placing all three of these tracks in a row creates an album weak point that puts Reflektor’s bland middle section to shame. And on that note, “Good God Damn,” sounds like a Spoon song without the commanding swagger, and could have been outtake from this forgettable stretch of rock songs on Reflektor. Compared to what Arcade Fire shown they’re capable of making, it’s hard to think certain points of Everything Now are their nadir.

While the album’s instrumentation is a true mixed bag of quality, the greatest and most overt stumbling block on Everything Now comes from its lyrics. Reflektor, particularly its title track, dealt with the idea of technological addiction and the informational overload that comes with modern life. This was fine when confined to one track with a sick dance beat, but Everything Now stretches this idea across an entire album, beating you over the head with a message of “aren’t we all so shallow?” The title track mocks the idea of constant consumption with lines like “I need it,” “I want it,” “I can’t live without it” in between shouts of “everything now!” It seems clear enough, and then Butler adds “every room in my house is filled with shit I couldn’t live without” as if listeners needed that extra clarification. The back to back “Infinite Content” tracks repeat this theme by having Butler shout “infinite content, infinite content, we’re infinitely content” ad nauseum. Instead of any recognition of this theme’s profundity, these clumsy lyrics, combined with the band’s intensive faux-corporate marketing campaign, mostly elicit a response of “I get what you’re going for, but it’s dumb.”

Everything Now is bold and ambitious, and even fans of Arcade Fire’s earlier work should admit there was almost no chance the band would return to the homespun simplicity of Funeral after selling out stadiums. That said, the album also seems to do a genuinely poor job of playing to the band’s strengths. Win Butler has a voice powerful enough to send shivers down your spine on tracks like “Black Wave/Bad Vibrations” and “Suburban War” where he sounds like a prophet of doom, but the polish of Everything Now causes him to just sound detached. Likewise, the band previously demonstrated they know how to craft unique lyrics that deal with heavy existential topics like life, death, love, and religion – even Reflektor sucked us in with its motif of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Only a few instances on Everything Now like “Put Your Money On Me” touch on these subjects, while the main anti-consumerist message just feels overbearing. It’s enough to make listeners long for Win Butler’s brother (and fellow band member) Will Butler to step in with his solo lyrics like “if I could fly, you know I’d beat the shit out of some birds,” just so the band would stop taking themselves so seriously.

In the end, the main redeeming quality of Everything Now comes from its instrumentation. Even though some tracks rank as the least enjoyable music the band has ever made, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to the disco-rock and electronic-based songs that abound on the album. Everything Now is far from Arcade Fire’s best, and certainly deserves the lukewarm reception its sure to get from fans, but to dismiss it entirely would require overlooking some demonstrable brilliance.

Rating: 6/10