Different enough to stand out, but accessible enough to be heard – it’s a delicate balance.
But over the course of four albums – from their urgent, emotional debut, Funeral (2004), to their carnival dance-fest, Reflektor (2013) – it is one that Arcade Fire have admirably achieved. Attaining both a huge loyal fanbase and mainstream radio play, the Canadian collective earned themselves an artistic freedom afforded to very few alternative bands: to either refine the template that produced their most innovative and accomplished album to date (yes, I’m talking about Reflektor, you philistines), or to take their music in a new, or at least different, direction.
To my great disappointment, Everything Now does neither. Instead of expanding or experimenting with their sound, Arcade Fire have diluted it. Insomuch as there are more synths and the odd disco beat, Everything Now bears some sonic similarities with Reflektor… But where are the different layers of rhythm: the congas, drum machines and steel drums? Where is that full-fat mix, constantly introducing fresh textures – effects-laden-guitars, cascades of keyboards and synthesisers, blasts of brass, discordant orchestral arrangements?
Above all, where is the sound of a band with 6+ multi-instrumentalists embellishing the core of a great song? If Arcade Fire were going to successfully strip back and simplify their sound, then Win Butler’s songwriting needed to be at the same high-standard as their four previous albums. Instead of brilliantly managing to involve his listeners in heavy, sometimes dark subjects, on Everything Now Butler sounds like an uninspired, yet all-too-knowing ‘content creator’: his melodies forced, his delivery lethargic, his lyrics vague and often as vapid as the desperately hollow consumer culture they ironise.
Just as contrived as Butler’s lyrics are some of the album’s main refrains, especially those of singles ‘Signs of Life’, ‘Creature Comfort’ and ‘Everything Now’. Nevertheless, it is thanks to its cheesy ABBA-homage piano hook that the title track has become Arcade Fire’s highest charting single to date. ‘Everything Now’ is undeniably catchy and dancey – some might even call it joyous… But with a sentimental choral singalong and unaccountably dodgy pan flutes, it is also seriously naff.
While the title track has some redeeming elements such as Owen Pallett’s spiralling strings, ‘Chemistry’ has none. The worst song Arcade Fire have ever released by some way, ‘Chemistry’ is a reprehensible fusion of lumpen reggae and brash glam rock that, astoundingly, not one of Arcade Fire’s core members or producers vetoed.
The dub-influenced ‘Peter Pan’ and bass-driven ‘Good God Damn’ are distinctly mediocre – on both the mix is too thin to cover for Butler’s substandard vocal. Then there is penultimate track ‘We Don’t Deserve Love’, which skips out of sluggish verses featuring a warbling synth that sounds a bit like a mournful Chewbacca, and into a trite, flowery chorus. The track also finds Butler commenting on his band’s new hit: ‘A terrible song on the radio baby / what else is new?’.
Having negotiated a nasty bout of the ABBAs on ‘Everything Now’, ‘Signs of Life’ finds Arcade Fire suffering from disco fever. Although starting promisingly with police sirens, handclaps and horns, ‘Signs of Life’ is too repetitive and dynamically stagnant to be a satisfying single.
Similar criticism could be made of ‘Creature Comfort’, however this song manages to maintain its high energy throughout its four minutes of shimmering art-pop chimera. Again there are some weak filler lyrics – along with some striking ones – and like ‘Everything Now’, a tedious ‘nah-ing’ section that feels like the band strategically manufacturing an anthemic moment, rather than the song warranting it. Yet ‘Creature Comfort’ also exudes a sense of vitality and fantasy from its pulsating, helicopter-whirring synths that emotively counters its dark subject-matter of body image insecurity, celebrity aspirationalism and teenage suicide.
Along with ‘Creature Comfort’, the most moving, and easily the best, song on Everything Now is Régine’s Chassagne’s pining for, and paean to, the late David Bowie on ‘Electric Blue’. Bowie had been a champion of the band ever since ‘Funeral’, and contributed a magisterial guest vocal to Reflektor’s epic eight-minute title track. Through its funky bassline, chucking guitars, whirling keyboards and Chassagne’s shrill, unreal falsetto, ‘Electric Blue’ conjures an evocative dreamworld that fittingly celebrates Bowie’s memory.
While I have mainly focused on its shortcomings, Everything Now is only a ‘bad’ album by comparison with Arcade Fire’s own discography. The two mid-album ‘Infinite Content’ interludes – one featuring quaint country guitar noodling, the other thrashy guitars and bendy riffs – continue to illustrate Arcade Fire’s considered approach to making an album cohesive. ‘Put Your Money On Me’ develops well too, ornamented though it is with harmonies once again reminiscent of ABBA.
Just as ‘The Suburbs’ ends with a shorter, orchestral extension of its lead track, so does Everything Now with high-pitched strings grilling the cheese of its earworm melody. The idea is nice but the failure of Butler to delve deeper into his theme means there is not the same powerful emotional closure as ‘The Suburbs (Continued)’. If I could have my time back, I’m not sure I would waste it all again.
Everything Now sounds too commercially poised, too self-consciously consumed with creating ‘infinitely relatable content’ to be anything other than Arcade Fire’s weakest album yet. For all their satire of materialism and targeted advertising, it is Win Butler and co. who sound suspiciously, and perhaps deliberately – but still not excusably – like they’re marketing a product.
Featured image: True Viral News.