Where do you go once you’ve gone over the top? That’s a question Arcade Fire will have to answer after the deeply cynical, commercialised grandiosity of Everything Now. Sam Lambeth investigates.
Arcade Fire have often been lauded as the natural successors to U2. Their first two albums, the fiddle-flecked majesty of Funeral and the epic, elegiac Neon Bible, dealt with weighty themes, soaring sing-a-longs and anthemic longing. Once they had mastered their own Joshua Tree of big-hearted, earnest awesomeness (2010’s high water-mark The Suburbs), they, just like the Irish band, decided to go a little bit weird.
Twenty years ago, U2 released their last brave record, the noble failure Pop. But while they themselves, and perhaps a little unfairly the musical press, have been distancing themselves from it since, Arcade Fire seem to have attempted a modern-day replication. For Everything Now, Arcade Fire’s fifth long-player, replicates the crass commercialism, mass misinformation and shallow celebrity self-anointment of Pop and brings it into the 21st century; it seems only a matter of time before a live performance will feature Win Butler stepping out of a giant lemon.
It’s hard to discuss Everything Now without touching upon its polarising PR campaign. Those aforementioned anthemic refrains have been jokingly trademarked as ‘the millennial whoop’, the snotty-nosed social media blogging shtick has been lampooned through fake reviews and the band aligned themselves with a bogus corporation. The message was clear – this new Arcade Fire is concerned with the superficiality of society, the loss of the self, and the effect upon future generations. “Some girls stand in the mirror, hate themselves and wait for the feedback,” Butler shouts over the disco-tinged, LCD Soundsystem-esque ‘Creature Comfort’, before adding “Lord, make me famous, if you can’t, just make it painless.”
This whole aesthetic, Arcade Fire going meta, would be highly rewarding (if not particularly ground-breaking) if the songs within Everything Now were as wonderfully bombastic as the PR campaign that preceded it. The melodic muscularity of The Suburbs, sadly, seems long gone as the Canadian troupe continue to delve in the synths and loops that ruled, rather than accompanied, 2013’s Reflektor. The only song where the fuzz is racked up is the stomping strut ‘Infinite Content’, a ‘Month of May’-esque blast where violin smothers guitar fuzz. It’s then followed by the back porch slow-burner ‘Infinite_Content’, using the same lyrics and, predictably, saying very little.
‘Signs of Life’ and ‘Electric Blue’ are shuddering, cold slices of electro that have the glacial appeal of Empire of the Sun but none of the swaths of infectious joy, while ‘Chemistry’ is an experiment in one-note reggae rock that won’t win any prizes. The only song that really stands up to the band’s previous work is the title track, an ABBA-pilfering, piano-led jangle that is as infectious and affecting as the products and fame the band continuously try to highlight.
And herein lies the problem. An album such as this was designed to make a statement, but doesn’t break through the initial idea to really resonate. Some may argue that keeping it glib and cynical benefits the fast food approach to information that today’s society seem to prefer, but an opportunity for zeitgeist-baiting irony has fallen way short of, to link back to an early example, U2’s Achtung Baby.
“She filled up the bath and put on our first record,” Butler says at one point, but if it’s a wisecrack upon how fans of the group are now preferring the ‘early stuff’, the joke is far too near the knuckle. Knowing your writing is, well, shitty, doesn’t excuse shitty writing (we’re looking at you, Simpsons). Everything Now had infinite potential, but seems content in crafting frustratingly subpar content.
Where do you go once you’ve gone over the top? That’s a question Arcade Fire will have to ask themselves for the next record, and the ‘drawing board’ might not be a bad answer.
Words by Sam Lambeth