Arcade Fire Cools on Everything Now

Arcade Fire have indisputably been at the top of the indie rock heap for over a decade. Now, after a reinvention on 2013’s Reflektor, the big question is; can they remain the world’s most creative indie band with their new album Everything Now? Well, it would appear the jury is very much out on that question. Everything Now is for the most part a well executed album that indeed has charms, especially on its more upbeat first half with the sunny title track, the bouncy disco of “Signs of Life” and the new wave synths of “Creature Comfort“. Unfortunately, the energy markedly wanes toward the end of the tracklist with more nondescript songs that don’t really make much of an impression. With the noted tastemaker music review site Pitchfork giving Everything Now a lowly 5.6 rating, by far the lowest of any Arcade Fire album, the backlash would appear to be under way. While I found that review to be unduly harsh, I will say that Arcade Fire are indeed going through a transition period.  The band has always worn its heart on its sleeve and while it may be cool to be aloof in the rock world, that’s never been the modus operandi of Canadian transplant Win Butler and his bandmates. Say what you want about them, but you could always tell that Arcade Fire cared not only about the subject matter of their songs, but they also were invested in the way the world perceived them. That passion is a huge component of what set them apart from the pack initially.

But that began changing during the run up to Reflektor, particularly in the orchestrated marketing, which promoted a stand-in band called the Reflektors that featured anonymous figures in oversized masks of the members, turning them into kitschy bobbleheads.  It was a clever concept, as Reflektor also represented a huge change in the band’s sound. Previously, their brand of indie rock had been infused with sepia toned old timey motifs such as French chanson, 50s rock and even church music, but on Reflektor they embraced dance floor disco balls and glowing floors like never before and even enlisted the help of dance rock architect James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem. And while there was a sub-theme of Haitian and other Caribbean rhythms to give it an earthy flavor and ground it, the album, like the fake band concept, gave us a more detached and remote Arcade Fire. The smoke machine and synthesizer artifice did to some degree obscure the beating human heart which had been so central to the band’s identity and Everything Now is clearly a step further down that path. This time around the marquee producer is Thomas Bangalter of Daft Punk and he mildly asserts his presence on the more house oriented dancey tracks that dominate the first half of the album.

Each Arcade Fire album has been loosely organized around a theme, loss on their 2004 debut Funeral, religion on Neon Bible, urban sprawl on The Suburbs and the Greek mythology via Brazilian carnival of Black Orpheus on Reflektor. This time around, it’s the constant overload in the digital age and the contradiction of unlimited access to information in the era of “alternative facts” and fake news. As Butler yelps over the punk blast of “Infinite Content“, we may be “infinitely content”, but “all of your money has already been spent”. And in case you didn’t get the point, they immediately play the same song again as a galloping mellow tune titled “Infinite_Content“. Which kind of exemplifies one of the issues with the album, the messages don’t have much subtlety, it basically just hits you over the head with the thesis that our culture is quickly going down a digital toilet in a deluge of selfies and narcissism. Take the title track, when Butler sings “Every song that I’ve ever heard/ Is playing at the same time, it’s absurd /And it reminds me, we’ve got everything now/We turn the speakers up till they break/ ‘Cause every time you smile it’s a fake!” There’s not a whole lot of room for ambiguity or interpretation there, the point is pretty obvious. And because they’ve scaled back on the emotional aspects of their music and have embraced a more modern sound, it’s hard not to think that perhaps Arcade Fire are becoming a bit like the very thing they seek to criticize. Such is the pitfall of satire, there’s a fine line between commenting on a phenomenon and embodying or glorifying it and Arcade Fire are treading very close to that bifurcation.

Having said that, there are several songs strong enough to transcend these shortcomings, in particular the standout “Creature Comfort” which is just as anthemic as anything they’ve ever written.  And even if some of the lyrics are a little cringe inducing, like referencing a fan attempting suicide while listening to Arcade Fire, on the whole it is a great track with a deeply catchy hook, driving synths and beats. On “Electric Blue” co-frontwoman Regine Chassagne takes the spotlight and rides a sleek “Genius of Love” type groove which makes a bid for jam of the summer. “Peter Pan” offers another excursion into Jamaican dub that’s just as effective as the similar tracks on Reflektor, but it doesn’t really build on them either. And then the album closes out with a couple of fairly forgettable tracks before going into the album’s outro, which takes a trick from the Australian psych band King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard and loops (mostly) seamlessly back into the album intro. It’s a neat bit of audio sorcery that reinforces the fact that Arcade Fire know that this album is likely to be consumed in a repeating playlist rather than as any physical media, but as I mentioned, it’s been done before and arguably better.

Which is the true conundrum of Everything Now. Taken on its own it’s a good, solid album with several enjoyable tracks. But as an Arcade Fire album, it surely lands at or near the bottom of their five releases and in a lot of ways is a more dilute version of Reflektor. Will the band show us something truly new and put the fire back into Arcade Fire or are we settling in for a late career slide into irrelevancy? The good news is that they’ve actually been here before when The Suburbs created a logical endpoint to the first phase of the band. Knowing that history, it doesn’t seem likely that they will go down without a fight.

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