“On and on I don’t know what I want, on and on I don’t know if I want it”
Artist: Arcade Fire
Released: July 28, 2017
Recorded: September 2016 – April 2017
Genre: Indie Pop, Alternative Dance (+Synthpop)
Producer: Arcade Fire, Markus Dravs, Thomas Bangalter, Steve Mackey, Geoff Barrow
Issue Date: 2017 (Columbia)
Best Track: Everything Now (including its intro and reprise)
TRACKS: 1) Everything_Now (Continued); 2) Everything Now; 3) Signs of Life; 4) Creature Comfort; 5) Peter Pan; 6) Chemistry; 7) Infinite Content; 8) Infinite_Content; 9) Electric Blue; 10) Good God Damn; 11) Put Your Money on Me; 12) We Don’t Deserve Love; 13) Everything Now (Continued)
Formed in 2001, Canadian rock group Arcade Fire are one of the major players of the 2000s-2010s indie scene. Their highly acclaimed debut Funeral (2004) introduced and popularized an anthemic style of indie rock that would gain momentum in mainstream music and influence a multitude of groups in the following years. They continued in that direction in Neon Bible (2007) and The Suburbs (2010), both of which were major critical and commercial successes, with the latter hitting #1 in the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States. The band members play a multitude of instruments, though Win Butler and Régine Chassagne generally provide lead vocals.
To understand the place that Everything Now occupies in the Arcade Fire canon, it’s necessary to look back at the group’s history with electronic music. The earliest traces of this style can be found in “Half Light II” and “Sprawl II” off The Suburbs, where the band combined their usual sense of melody with a pronounced synthpop sound; however, it’s on Reflektor (2013) that they would dive neck-deep in electronic and experiment with art rock and dance music. Said record remains their most ambitious project so far, although this ambition expresses itself through an 85-minute track list harmed by excess material and overlong dance songs.
Reflektor was not as well received as Arcade Fire’s other albums, and as a result, a big question was whether they would consider it a mere experiment or a blueprint to a new style. There was some room for excitement, since the record’s better numbers (the title track, “Hey Orpheus”, “Afterlife”) utilized these newly added dance elements in an exciting fashion. However, the group saw fit to release the repetitive synthpop protest single “I Give You Power” as their first offering of 2017, starting the year on a sour note that Everything Now ultimately fails to correct.
The album, indeed, takes cues from its predecessor’s electronic experimentation, but goes for a radically different direction. First, as with Reflektor, the additional non-rock instrumentation (strings, horns, etc.) that embellished the atmospheres of the band’s first three efforts is not as prominent, and is often rather used as a complement to the melodies of the songs. Second, many of the tracks use synthesizers in this same fashion, and while there are no extended dance grooves or ambient cuts as with “Reflektor” or “Supersymmetry” respectively, Everything Now does span a few styles of electronic thanks to them — an obvious example is the industrial-lite sound of “Creature Comfort”, one of the four singles that came out prior to the record’s release. Otherwise, it’s a very different beast, as well as Arcade Fire’s most “radio friendly” release. The reasons for this are that the songs are very direct melodically, and sometimes even recall other famous pop or rock acts, though the latter does not speak well for the album’s originality. For instance, some have compared the lead single and title track “Everything Now” to an ABBA cut due to its strong disco sound, but its anthemic tendencies also makes it quite similar to U2’s “One Tree Hill”.
The idea of Arcade Fire consciously releasing radio friendly material may ring alarm bells, but to the band’s credit, this ties in with the overarching concept of Everything Now. The album as a whole is a critique of consumerism and the disconnect that it creates between people, and this manifests itself not just through the ironically accessible music, but also through the lyrics touching upon the desire for approval (“Creature Comfort”), the schism between two members of a relationship (“We Don’t Deserve Love”), and the all-encompassing urge to possess more and more (the title track, which embodies this idea in its very name). What’s more, its marketing campaign played on this theme: this can be seen with the fictional Twitter page of “Everything Now Corp”, not to mention a handful of fake website pages with topics such as Creature Comfort cereal, an Arcade Fire installment of Rock Band, or a pre-pre-review of the album itself.
This sounds good on paper, but unfortunately, the presentation fails to make the most of the concept’s promises. Many of the songs suffer either from weak melodies or highly questionable stylistic decisions, to such an extent that all but a few cuts rank as Arcade Fire’s worst material — even Reflektor, in all of its indulgence, mostly avoids this. Some of these issues stem from the concept itself: “Chemistry” plays out as a parody of a love song with its endless repetition of “chemistry, baby you and me“, but said repetition becomes grating as the listens accumulate. Still, even that sounds fine compared to the first “Infinite Content”, a punk outburst that mainly sticks to mind because of its completely brainless lyrics.
These are hardly the only weak numbers, however. “Peter Pan” has an interesting percussion sound, but its lack of any strong hooks means that it will take more than a couple of listens for it to make any lasting impression — the same applies to “Good God Damn”. Some of the singles are only slightly better: “Creature Comfort” is decent musically, but the combination of blunt, sloppy lyricism with Win Butler’s limp performance and Régine Chassagne’s shrill upper register spoils it in part. “Signs of Life” has this same lyrical problem, though made worse by a simplistic lead hook. It says something when material of this caliber is chosen to represent Everything Now and a sizeable amount of cuts fails to even reach this standard.
The issues addressed so far may give the impression that this release is a disaster, but this is not quite the case. For starters, while many of the tracks are weak in terms of songwriting, they remain perfectly tolerable, and there are little qualms to be made with their production, which gives them the punch and energy they need to get by — this is no small compliment, given that Everything Now delves into disco, funk, country, punk, and a bit of ska among others, all while remaining very cohesive in sound. It’s worth noting that multiple people co-produced the album, including Thomas Bangalter (Daft Punk) and Geoff Barrow (Portishead) as well as long-time collaborator Markus Dravs.
In addition, there is a very good sense of progression, with the hard dance material mainly in the first half and the atmospheric numbers in the second, with both instances of “Infinite Content” bridging the gap between the two effectively. There are no real moments where it seems that a song would work better in a different spot on the record. To give an idea of how effective the track sequencing is, I was under the impression that the synthpop ballad “Electric Blue” was the worst of the four pre-release singles, again due to Chassagne’s high-pitched vocals, but its subdued mood actually works quite well as a way to kick off the back end of Everything Now.
Finally, what remains are the highlights, and though the album has few, they are very high, and they make up a good 20 minutes of its 47-minute duration. The lesser of these is “We Don’t Deserve Love”, which starts off quietly but subtly increases in intensity through its 6-minute length all while capturing some of the climactic drive of Arcade Fire’s first three releases. “Put Your Money on Me” is even better, with its anxious keyboard groove and its excellent chorus — this is a rare instance where the use of repetition works, as the song increases in momentum throughout, making the chorus more and more powerful every time it returns.
The remaining track, “Everything Now”, is the album’s finest moment by far, as well as a brilliant number in its own right. Although it is fairly derivative, the feeling of universality that the group developed over time feels alive and well on it, and it’s driven forward by a wonderful hook and a massive, uplifting sound that contrasts with the desperate lyrics. This is the only song where Arcade Fire perfectly combines their classic personality with the album’s concept and style, and it’s all for the better that it returns in a subdued, though still powerful fashion as an epilogue.
In sum, Everything Now is an album that has some aspects going for it — a very good sound, an intriguing concept, solid track sequencing, a few great cuts — but dramatically fails to live up to its ambitions and match the band’s glory days regardless because of extremely inconsistent and rather unoriginal songwriting. Even with its share of successes, long-time Arcade Fire listeners will find little to keep from this release, whereas newcomers are advised to steer clear from it. In either case, I thoroughly advise listening to the singles before taking the plunge, and even then, it likely won’t be worth getting the record at full price.
PERSONAL RATING: ***
RECOMMENDATION RATING: **
LETTERED RATING: C+