Arcade Fire falls victim to the very criticism they present in this disappointing album
Arcade Fire signed a major label deal and apparently had cash to burn. So, they rolled out a satirical performance art piece-qua-advertising campaign, mocking (celebrating?) late capitalism. Why not? They have Columbia money and Grammy name recognition. They’re on the victory lap at the end of two decades, an impressive lifetime for a band. Well, sort of; bands last longer than they once did. The acts that Arcade Fire would like to be considered among survived as long, and longer: Radiohead, Sonic Youth, Springsteen, Bowie. And in a similar fashion, as varied as their discography is, you know an Arcade Fire song when you hear one. You recognize Win Butler, Régine Chassagne, that wide open Texas-or-is-it-Canada feeling, and the ecstatic community of a shout along chorus the way you recognize a David Bowie song.
This “communal ecstasy” aspect is their most enduring and distinct trait and it strings together their eclectic fifth album, Everything Now. On their last album, the bloated Reflektor, the band leaned into what the communal ecstasy of rock music inevitably trends toward — dance music. Behind the boards, James Murphy mixed the feeling of the hook on “Wake Up” with his shimmery shuffling LCD Soundsystem groove, opening new avenues for Arcade Fire. They seemed to be following through on that, at least if you heard the singles released ahead of the latest album, which all flirt heavily with dance music, if not outright disco. The album’s overarching tone, evoked by the album’s artwork, puts Everything Now alongside albums like Tame Impala’s Currents and the xx’s I See You as evidence of a trend I might call the “festivalization” of indie music. This music seems designed to be heard while wearing a $300 wristband, $11 beer in hand, the night sky blotted out by high-powered light shows. This is natural for Arcade Fire, seeing as lots of people flock to festivals just to see them; Arcade Fire has performed Coachella, the capitalist’s simulacrum of that communal feeling the band’s music always tried to evoke, a total of four times.
But the album is more disparate than hinted at. Although only 47 minutes long, Everything Now feels like The White Album. I almost would have preferred the straight neo-disco album promised by the choice of Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter as producer. Arcade Fire tries out folk-country, new wave, reggae, disco, AOR, Swedish pop, and they’re successful enough musicians to do so while maintaining their identity. So if some of the songs seem half-baked or downright irritating, don’t worry, something else will be along soon.
And boy, do I find some of these songs irritating. Take “Signs of Life”: who thought Win Butler pretending to be Grandmaster Flash was a good idea? He sounds like an actor rapping in a 70’s after-school special about the dangers of drugs. Or how about “Peter Pan”: As if Peter Pan weren’t an obnoxious allusion already, they double down with a confusing dub track to accompany nonsense lyrics like “We can walk if we don’t feel like flying/We can live, I don’t feel like dying.”
The lyrics throughout seem as though written to emphasize of how ill-conceived some of the musical decisions are. The hook on “Chemistry” only makes the track’s Bad-Company-playing-from-the-jukebox sound all the more infuriating. “You and me, we got chemistry”?? Good one, gang. On “Creature Comfort,” in which the band so boldly suggests that people on the internet aren’t as happy as they appear, Butler yelps about how “some boys hate themselves, spend their lives resenting their fathers” and how “some girls hate their bodies, stand in the mirror and wait for the feedback.” Then he and Chassange plead, “God make me famous/If you can’t, just make it painless,” which may be more of a revelation of the band’s insecurities than of millennials’. The “haha get it?” pun that comprises the hook on the twin “Infinite Content” tracks (“Infinite content, infinite content, we’re infinitely content”) gets hollower and more banal each time Butler says it, despite the interesting slide between the first version’s breakneck guitar and the second’s Conor Oberst imitation.
These gestures towards “issues” make Everything Now extremely frustrating. Everything surrounding the album, the teenaged bourgeois lyrics, the arrogant and insecure fake album review the band wrote as part of the promo campaign, the dizzying array of confusing-to-bad music choices, and the Everything Now Corporation, which is apparently a joke on the youth-culture-corporate-media-military-complex, despite Arcade Fire being maybe the most well known product of that complex—it’s all presented so clumsily, so smugly, so cynically, that it detracts from the (few) merits the album may have had. After 40 odd minutes of that, Butler expects me to sympathize with a line like “Officer please don’t check my breath, it ain’t my only sin?” Please. I can’t tell if I’m grateful it took as long as it did for Arcade Fire to falter so predictably, or pissed off I didn’t see it coming sooner.