Arcade Fire are the world’s biggest credible rock band. They emerged on their 2004 debut Funeral as a spectacular oddity: a nerdy, earnest Canadian septet with an orchestral-rock sound that was dark, visceral and fervent, equal parts Neutral Milk Hotel and Echo and the Bunnymen, but bigger.
Win Butler was already an accomplished songwriter, singing at the upper limits of his range to infect songs like ‘Neighbourhood #3 (Power Out)’ with an awesome, strained intensity that perfectly suited his anxious lyrics about the clashes between death, love, family and religion. Between then and 2010’s The Suburbs, via 2007’s Neon Bible, Arcade Fire gradually shed their orchestral accoutrements and grew into a fully-fledged Springsteenian rock band. Since that album, and indeed briefly on it, they have absorbed a sound that few would have thought plausible in 2003: disco.
Their first album to wholly embrace it, Reflektor, was a great success – their most critically acclaimed since Funeral and the one that catapulted them to a Glastonbury headline slot in 2014. They successfully reconciled their dark and dancey sides with help from David Bowie and James Murphy – two guys who’d been there and done that. But Everything Now is full of problems, and feels more like a collection of Reflektor-rejects than a cogent new album – it has the same sound and same themes but is worse in every conceivable way.
Arcade Fire’s point on Everything Now is something like this: we are so desperate and impatient to consume culture and products nowadays that we are only allowing shallow, meaningless cultures that can be quickly digested to flourish. I say ‘something like this’ because one of the album’s major weaknesses is its failure to really flesh out the details of their argument.
It’s a strange idea to build an album around. Firstly because it’s so damn condescending to your audience. Secondly because it’s a lazy stereotype of the modern world that’s patently not true if you look around you – to whom do Arcade Fire think they owe their careers if not fans of weighty and meaningful culture? Who do they think reads London Student?! To make such a negative, flawed argument with an album and make it a success, you’d better be compelling. They are not.
Every song here can be filed under one of three headings: ‘Unnecessary Interlude’, ‘Total Disaster’ (‘Chemistry’, ‘Peter Pan’) or ‘Almost Good but Flawed’. Most tracks fall into the last category, and the flaws tend to come from Win Butler’s lyrics. Take ‘Everything Now’ – it’s a fun disco track with a strong piano-and-violin hook taken straight from the ABBA playbook. But Butler’s lyric is so bad: he takes aims at – gasp! – materialism, pretension, and melodramatically links it all to the breakdown of a family. But everyone knows that materialism is a Bad Thingô – there’s nothing interesting about saying so and it’s baffling that a 37-year-old professional songwriter at the apex of his career would choose it as his topic. He barely makes any effort to package it artistically, with his chorus being, ironically: “Everything now, I want it / Everything now, I need it”. Yet you can tell from the grand musical accompaniment to this lyric that Butler thinks he’s making a big point. It makes him look silly. He makes similar mistakes on ‘Creature Comfort’ by enlightening us all that “some boys hate themselves, spend their lives resenting their fathers” among other observations.
Butler’s approach throughout this album is unsatisfying. He must have been so impassioned by the state of the modern world as he perceived it that he decided to dedicate an entire album’s worth of lyrics to protesting it; yet he brings no passion, no fury, no sadness. Instead he sings ironically and insouciantly from the perspective of the kind of consumer he derides. It’s juvenile. It’s painfully obvious when he says something we’re meant to find distasteful, like when he sings “I don’t even wanna watch TV” on ‘We Don’t Deserve Love’, but time after time they just seem like such obvious, easy targets to critique that it’s just bland. Butler offers no genuine emotion or honesty, and this, connected to his failure really to spell out the details of his critique, means that these songs just seem pointless, meaningless. They lack the very thing AF attempt to critique the absence of: cultural depth. Instead of the grand polemic against society they aimed for, we have poorly-conceived, poorly-delivered pseudo-intellectual diatribes against targets whose badness is already blatant.
Even when he strays away from the main theme, like on ‘Put Your Money on Me’ and ‘Good God Damn’, his delivery remains bland, his lyrics unconvincing. Tellingly, the album’s best lyric is ‘Electric Blue’, written and sung by Regine Chassagne. It contains about the album’s only moment of genuine emotion, her chorus of “Every single night I dream about you”, directed at the late David Bowie, an early supporter of the band. Chassagne’s shrill delivery would have benefitted from some softening post-production and it makes the song hard to love however. Butler’s lyrical blunders are a real shame because he’s usually reliable for an impassioned performance and clever lines, and also because the rest of the band never really let the side down with the instrumentals, though a few gimmicky moments have me on the fence.
I can’t help but think some of the blame for this must be apportioned to lead producer Thomas Bangalter, who, as one half of Daft Punk, has never had to worry too much about having strong, meaningful lyrics. Of course, even nonsensical lyrics can still make an album great, but AF are so clearly trying to make a point with this album that their vagueness, and failure to get that point across in anything like a mature or artistic way is a glaring error – an error that only a producer with a career like Bangalter’s could fail to insist was corrected.
Furthermore the whole concept of Everything Now is undermined by the fact that the point AF are trying to make is one they’ve made before, much more enjoyably: the idea that society is culturally barren can be extrapolated from their first two albums, and was made directly and comprehensively on recent tracks like ‘Modern Man’, ‘Rococo’, ‘We Used to Wait’ and ‘Porno’. It’s also been made by countless others, who did a much better job of it: the classic Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury imagines a dystopia where culture has become devoid of meaning through overexposure, but his novel offers so much more: perspicacity, inventive language, and hope. Pure Comedy by Father John Misty, released only this year, also has the same perspective as AF, yet again is much more perceptive and offers levity through humour.
Everything Now does not fail because it doesn’t do what previous AF albums did, though the lack of many of the things that made them great is lamentable (where’s the intensity, the pathos?), it fails because it doesn’t achieve what it alone set out to do, even succumbing to the very flaws it tries to expose in others.
Featured image: The Times.