Album of the Week: Arcade Fire's 'Everything Now'
Arcade Fire didn't come here to make friends. That much is evident from the fact that fifth album Everything Now starts with a friggin' reprise of its title track -- titled "Everything_Now (continued)" -- which leads directly into the full "Everything Now." Make it to the end, and you get another addendum to the album's lead single (this time titled "Everything Now (continued)," which -- spoiler alert -- feeds directly back into the LP-opening double-reprise if you play it on repeat. Infinite content!
This is all to say, you'll probably already have a good idea of whether you'll be in or out on Everything Now by the time the piano riff lands to kick off the title track proper. Hell, it might not even take you that long: The media buildup for Arcade Fire's latest has been as pervasive and exhausting as for any major album release of 2017, to the point where it felt like you were forced to take sides on the LP before it was even released. By now, you know about all the shenanigans that have gone into creating the media-overexposure narrative behind Everything Now: the fictional Everything Now Corp, the fake cereal and double-fake Stereogum review, the real major-label deal and the maybe-real embrace of pop and dance music, shepherded by co-producers Thomas Bangalter of Daft Punk and Steve Mackey of Pulp.
Everything Now may not really be Arcade Fire's pop moment, but it is absolutely their Pop moment -- the poorly received, overambitious and undercooked quasi-flop released by spiritual predecessors U2 in 1997, which this LP has drawn understandable comparisons to. Pop saw U2 half-heartedly doubling down on the Eurodance inclinations of previous effort Zooropa, dressing up like the Village People for the album's lead video and emerging from a gigantic mirrorball lemon on tour, among other things -- all in the name of poking fun at consumer culture (or something). No word on any accompanying megafruit on tour for Arcade Fire yet, and from the "Everything Now" video it appears their costuming remains stuck in the Rattle & Hum era, but otherwise they're clearly calling from the Pop playbook: The album follows previous LP Reflektor's hesitant foot on the dance floor by going full disco on a handful of tracks, while the message of endless Facebook scrolling furthering human alienation (or something) is inconsistently delivered but thuddingly reinforced.
So what is there to recommend Everything Now, then? Well... it's an Arcade Fire album. Nobody in rock is louder or blusterier than the Montreal sextet, but that's nothing new: The reason they've been one of the pre-eminent bands in alternative since their 2004 debut is because they do bombast in its many forms better than any of their peers. And seven years after defining statement The Suburbs, there's still no one else audacious enough to oscillate from marrying "Magnificent Seven"-style po-faced white-boy rap with the sweeping strings of a half-time Cerrone groove ("Signs of Life") to smashing demented faux-dub with Billy Squier arena RAWK ("Chemistry") to a Twitter-meltdown garage-punk rave-up ("Infinite Content") that collapses into weepy country balladry ("Infinite_Content" -- get used to it).
Are those experiments successful, though? Depends on your definition. Are they successful in making you forget that Arcade Fire are fundamentally chest-pounding rock true believers, not genre-hopping Nile Rodgers acolytes? Not really. Are they successful at making you want to unplug from social media the weekend while you plan (via telegram) a vinyl-only listening party for you and your most Instagram-entrenched friends? Unlikely. But do they succeed as interesting, never-heard-that-before hybrid jams that would probably sound great in either a wide-open field or tightly enclosed venue? Early signs are encouraging.
Not everything on Everything Now requires an if-you-say-so leap of cross-genre faith, either. "Electric Blue" is the band's most seamless jam in ages, a sparkling pop-funk confection that could've been a blog-slayer for Architecture in Helsinki a decade ago, or the second-half highlight of Spotify's New Music Friday playlist last week. "We Don't Deserve Love" is the (relatively) understated closer, a six-and-a-half-minute electro-pop moaner in which frontman Win Butler actually sounds more resigned than righteous -- a better indicator of the band's 21st-century fatigue than any of the LP's more pointed lyrics. And look, you can tell within a song's first three seconds if it's a legit ABBA tribute or a Mamma Mia!-inspired fraud; yes, the piano-and-strings-led groove to "Everything Now" sounds like "Dancing Queen," but more than that it feels like "Dancing Queen" -- and if that was really so easy to do, thousands of songs by more obvious disciples than Arcade Fire would've done it already.
Naturally, some moments on Everything Now fall on their face. The forced teen empathy and "God, make me famous!/ If you can't, just make it painless" refrain of "Creature Comfort" are somewhat horrifying -- a shame, given the song's otherwise impressive stadium-synth largesse. And unless you're Kelsea Ballerini, there's absolutely no excuse for invoking Peter Pan (as in "Come on Wendy, I'll be your...") in any lyrical context in 2017, particularly not over the sound of mutant ska being blasted out of dying subwoofers. But if a surfeit of lyrical clunkers was a dealbreaker for you with Arcade Fire, kudos at even making it past their second album ("Mirror mirror on the wall/ Tell me where the bombs will fall"), or third ("The businessmen, they drink my blood/ Like the kids at art school said they would"), or fourth ("What if the camera/ Really do/ Take your soul?"). Butler's always been a heat-check shooter with his preachings, and you either learn to live with the occasional air-balled 35-footer, or you go back to listening to Real Estate.
The really good news for Everything Now is that at least Win's not chucking into double-overtime anymore: the album is done within a regulation-length 48 minutes. Despite its myriad faults, the greatest sin committed by Reflektor wasn't the ceaseless media cycle leading up to and following it, or the lyrics about "little boys with their porno," or the fact that consecutive tracks on it were subtitled "(Oh Eurydice)" and "(Hey Orpheus)" -- it was the fact that it went a full 75 minutes, still muddling on well after the record had been sapped of its most compelling sounds and ideas. Everything Now ends almost exactly when it begins to tire, and never noticeably sags before then -- a boast not even the Grammy-conquering The Suburbs could truly claim.
The band didn't have to do it like this. They could've gone the sneak-release route, they could've split vocal duties more evenly between Butler and occasional co-lead Regine Chassagne (whose delicate wail is, in its own way, as powerful as Win's histrionics, without being nearly as overbearing), they could've focused their subject matter and genre-dabbling to something more obviously coherent. They could have -- as Butler once posed it to a dude who may shortly find himself in a similar musical conundrum with his own comeback album -- just shut up and played the hits.
But for better or worse that's just not the Arcade Fire way, and they've proven over the years that the better is generally compelling enough to put up with the worse. What we should've learned from U2 all those years ago -- and Pop is a similarly fascinating, fun listen two decades years later, disconnected from all the hype and post-post-irony -- is that when it comes to albums like these, it's critical not to take the artists behind them as seriously as they take themselves. Maybe Butler & Co. genuinely believe they're simultaneously making the definitive musical statement on 2010s content nausea (sorry, Parquet Courts) while also delivering a knockout record for the Brooklyn clubs, or maybe they enjoyed f--king around with some new sounds and ideas for a few years and are willing to leave it to us and our Premature Evaluations to separate the BS from the truthbombs. Either way, they keep a straight face so we don't have to.