Artist: Arcade Fire
In Brief: While I really enjoy the disco-rock sound and the theme of media oversaturation, it’s a genre exercise that has its limits, and the repetitive choruses make those limits painfully clear. I enjoy this one more than a lot of Arcade Fire’s fanbase seems to, but I think they need to change things up and truly surprise us again when they get around to making album #6.
Remember how disco was declared dead in the late 1970s? I’ve commented a few times recently, especially when the subject of rap/rock and nu-metal came up, that there are probably a lot of genres which could now be deader than disco. After a certain style of music oversaturates the market and then falls out of style due to backlash, it’s natural that a bit of a cooling off period will probably be followed by curious and/or nostalgic musicians, maybe some of whom weren’t very old when the previous wave of that style’s popularity, slowly reviving it. Maybe they’re not even trying to revive it deliberately, but they’ll play with the style ironically, then enough listeners will figure out that they actually like what they’re hearing un-ironically, so then others are free to follow up on that revival un-ironically.
This is all my long-winded way of saying that Arcade Fire is more than just dabbling in disco music at this point. They’ve flirted with various forms of danceable retro-rock music before, most notably in their Blondie homage “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”, and the title track from Reflektor, where they did David Bowie so well that Bowie himself (perhaps jokingly) threatened to steal it if they didn’t give him a guest vocal. These were startling moves at the time, but we’ve reached the point where we kind of expect the band to be more influenced by dance music and a bit of reggae than by the upstart, old-timey-instrument-heavy brand of indie rock they started our making.
Arcade Fire’s fifth album, Everything Now, isn’t a 100% disco album, but it’s definitely saturated with the sounds of the seventies, overlaid with a bit of ironically detached modern indie rock sensibility, of course. And whether you’re up for a more blatant revival of that era probably tells you how much you’ll love or hate this record. I personally enjoy the sound of it, and it might even be the band’s most instantly accessible record yet, without feeling like it’s doing so in some sort of a sad attempt at chart success. Win Butler and his wife Régine Chassagne are simply too manic and quirky of a frontman and frontwoman for this band to ever feel like they’re doing anything too conventional. Win especially feels like the kind of guy who’s always at risk of going completely unhinged or falling headlong into a deep depression due to the subject matter he sings about, which adds a heaviness to these songs that deliberately contrasts with the light and airy feel of the more upbeat tracks. On this album, rampant commercialism, our seemingly constant need to have the latest technology at our fingertips, and the inherent emptiness of being promised everything while none of it has much of a lasting impact are the things that he spends his time railing against. Some have found his delivery to be excessively preachy, even a bit like a crotchety old man, but I don’t see it as quite that severe. Maybe it’s just because I’ve had five albums to get used to the band by now, but I think he also indicts himself in a lot of it, recognizing that he’s one of the privileged hungry consumers and also one of the creators adding to the sea of constant content for others to consume. At least to me, that keeps Everything Now from sounding like it’s an album hell-bent on spoiling everyone else’s fun. They recognize, and might even perhaps be making fun of, the inherent clash of self-seriousness and superficiality in their music. It’s quite a bit like U2‘s electronic phase in the 1990s – if Reflektor is Arcade Fire’s Achtung Baby, then this album may well be their Pop – a wifely derided and misunderstood hiccup in their discography that I’m certain to spend my fair share of effort defending over the years to come.
I actually don’t think that the style, delivery, or message of Everything Now is its true weakness. Sure, one could argue that the lyrics don’t fully deliver on the promise of this record’s weird marketing campaign, which was jokingly disguised as a legal battle between the band and some sort of media conglomerate that sells literally everything. I haven’t done a real deep dive into all these bits and pieces of self-mocking marketing, to be honest – mostly because I’ve been spending my time listening to a lot of other music in order to avoid wearing this record out from too much repetition. That is my true worry where this enjoyably weird record is concerned – that I’ll consume too much of it at too quick a rate and get really burned out on it. I largely blame the repetitive nature of the songwriting for that. So many of these choruses loop over and over and over again during the last few minutes of the songs they belong to, to the point where it could be a fun way to do an extended jam on one or two tracks, but having it happen so often without a whole lot changing up between one repetition and the next in most of those songs makes the album really tedious if listened to straight through in one sitting. A lot of these tracks start out with a fun groove and some interesting things to say, and yet they don’t fully deliver on their potential a lot of times, due to not being as climactic as a lot of the band’s classic songs are. That’s not just because these are mostly dance songs instead of rock songs. Hell, “Reflektor” was a seven-minute behemoth that took its time to build up and break down again, and I never got tired of it. But on Everything Now, even a few of the album’s shorter tracks fall victim to this – and I can tell from the redundant way a few of them were named that this is probably intentional. Heck, maybe it’s even self-referential – naming the album and three of its tracks “Everything Now”, and two of its shorter tracks “Infinite Content”, wedged right up against each other. But it’s one of those jokes where you get it early on and then have to endure the repeated punchline for several minutes anyway. I don’t want to sell the album short when it does have some extremelymemorable grooves, melodic hooks, and unexpected bits of instrumentation here and there, as well as a few emotional gut-punches toward the end. But when all is said and done, even while I find Everything Now quite enjoyable, I don’t think much of anyone will be making a case for it being one of Arcade Fire’s better records. One the newness of it wears off, I’ll probably be listening to it as rarely as my other least favorite in their discography, Neon Bible. (Ouch. I’ll probably get some hate mail for that one!)
1. Everything_Now (Continued)
The downbeat, dismal intro track pretty much tips the band’s hand right away, signalling that this will be a bookend we’ll only fully understand when we get to the end of the record. It’s meant to make you feel like you’ve been dropped right into the middle of a song without context, since it’s a reprise (preprise?) of a lyric from the actual title track, delivered in the most dour tone Win can muster before a cacophony of sound takes over, possibly a reference to the “every song playing at once” dilemma that actually gets mentioned in the title track. (Maybe let’s stop discussing the title track until we actually get to the title track, OK?)
2. Everything Now
Oh hey, it’s the title track! This one puts a smile on my face right away – it’s a totally shameless throwback to the disco era, with a cymbal-heavy drum beat constantly pumping away, and a fantastically catchy piano melody leading the way, as if it existed in a world where Abba never stopped being cool. (Listen to this one and tell me you don’t get the momentary urge to launch into the chorus from “Dancing Queen”. It’s only a matter of time before we get a fan-made mashup similar to the “Sprawl II” one with Blondie, I’m willing to bet.) There’s also a sampled woodwind instrument that sounds like it could be an Andean flute, which gives the song just the right bit of oddball edge, and may well be the best use of the instrument in pop music since a certain Shakira hit from about a decade and a half ago. Beyond the superficially catchy aspects of this song, I enjoy the deliberate contrast between the happy mood and the downer lyrics, which express discontent with the notion of having everything at your fingertips – all the music, movies, disposable products, etc. that the world has to offer – and all of it leading to a sense of depression, meaninglessness, and borderline insanity as it fills all the available recesses of your mind to the point where the constant barrage leaves no room for any mental peace and quiet. “Every room in my house is filled with shit I couldn’t live without”, Win grunts at his angriest moment here. It’s a first world problem, to be sure, but it’s one that I can really relate to, because as much as I love the ability to consume massive amounts of music and find off-the-beaten-path favorites to complement the heavily commercial ones, sometimes the sheer notion of it gets exhausting and I just have to set aside my phone, give Spotify a rest, and have a little peace and quiet just to hear myself think for a change.
3. Signs of Life
The transition between the title track and this song commits the musical sin of using police sirens as a thematic element, which as I’ve pointed out many times before, is more than a bit startling if you’re listening to it while driving. Setting that aside, the group is decidedly more Bee Gees than Abba this time around, maybe not in the falsetto department (we’ll get there later, trust me), but definitely in terms of the cadence of the lyrics, which has got to be pulling from “Stayin’ Alive” as one of its influences. It makes the chorus, sung by Win and Régine in unison, catchy as hell despite the rather nihilistic message of it: “Lookin’ for signs of life/Lookin’ for signs every night/But there’s no signs of life/So we do it again.” (Grammar police aside: That should be “But there’s no sign of life.” Moving on.) There really isn’t a dull moment here – at least, if you don’t mind that this one feels like more of a dance track than the work of a full band. The strings and some highly addictive handclap help to add energy and drama at exactly the right moments. Like a lot of my favorite tunes in this genre, it’s practically begging for involuntary movement on the part of listeners who can’t resist a good beat, while simultaneously offering a bit of detached commentary on the very hedonistic exercise it’s encouraging. Is this really all there is to life – struggle through the work week, go out on the weekends, have some mindless fun and try to dance/drink/screw away your worries, then lather, rinse, repeat? I’m having way too much fun being depressed over that right now.
4. Creature Comfort
While still danceable, I’d put this song more in the “electropop” territory rather than disco, because it’s got a lower bpm rate but something about it feels a bit more sinister. Win’s all but abandoned singing here, speaking and shouting most of his lyrics like the manic disillusioned preacher that he is, while Regina chimes in with her usual cheery, childlike tones, an intentionally odd contrast to the subject matter of the song. A lot of it seems to be about a double standard that causes men and women to have a negative image of themselves in very different ways – men hate themselves when they can’t measure up to their role models and prove their dominance in society; women hate themselves due to the constant barrage of attention given to every facet of their appearance, which goes double for anyone trying to break into the entertainment industry, I guess. The song doesn’t shy away from the notion that people can be driven to suicide over the pressure caused by these expectations, and in a weird moment of self-reference, Win his this to say about a fan he presumably interacted with either online or after a show at some point: “Assisted suicide/She dreams about dying all the time/She told me she came so close/Filled up the bathtub and put on our first record.” That’s just creepy – that someone would misinterpret your music as something that’s supposed to usher them into the next life rather than convicting them to make the most of this one. Some listeners have seen this line as distasteful and even self-congratulatory on the band part, but I would imagine Win is horrified by this – no artist likes to have their words taken as license for a listener to end their life, I would imagine. The refrain “God, make me famous/If you can’t, just make it painless” is rather interesting in light of the references to suicide – everyone seems to get their 15 minutes of fame these days and then get discarded as we move on to the next big meme, or the next Hollywood “it girl”, or the next-big-thing indie band. What if the message we’re sending is that if you can’t get popular and stay popular, you’re nobody? I thinkthat’s what this song might be about, at least in part. Either way, the dissonance between the subject matter and the delivery is intentionally jarring.
5. Peter Pan
The band tries on a few reggae tropes for size here, with not quite the same roof-raising results as the more energetic parts of “Here Comes the Night Time”, but it’s still an interesting experiment. The familiar piano riffs, little bits of blurting horns, and emphasis on the downbeat are all there, but the drums and bass are so fuzzed out that it fits in with the mostly electronic surroundings of the rest of the album. Whether you like this or find it annoying probably depends on how much you like distorted low-end sounds – I find them weirdly fascinating as long as a song doesn’t dwell on them for too long, and this one’s fairly brief at under three minutes. I’m not going to pretend the lyrics are anything fascinating, though. Win is distressed over someone he loves feeling like she’s dying, and he imagines himself as Peter Pan while she is Wendy, so that he can whisk her away to a place where she’ll never age. It’s a sweet but corny sentiment, and Win’s slightly sneering delivery makes me wonder if he’s mocking the very idea of it rather than saying it sincerely.
This song takes the reggae experimentation into even goofier territory – the band has got to be putting on a ridiculous persona here, as a way to deflate the perception that they’re too self-serious to do things like this. That doesn’t mean that this is a funny song per se, but it gives me the feeling that they’re mocking someone. In a way that’s good, because if I took these lyrics at face value, it would basically amount to a guy creeping on a girl who doesn’t like him, insisting that they’ve got chemistry and he’ll make her see it come hell or high water. It’s exactly what large numbers of hormonal rock songs are about, and despite the reggae overtones of the song, the chorus brings in this trashy electric guitar riff that sounds like it could have been lifted from a butt rock or hair metal song, just to sell the intended superficiality of it all. It’s a stupid song that’s meant to portray a stupid man thinking he can make a woman bend to his will, and I kind of like it for taking the piss out of guys like that. But the end of it takes an otherwise fun, simple chorus and runs it straight into the ground for way too long. It’s only a three-and-a-half minute song, but this is the first point on the album where I start to feel like they’re stalling for time because they couldn’t come up with a witty or climactic way to end a song. They need a final knockout punch to really sell us on what a douchebag this character is, and the way they punt instead of fully bringing it home is the only thing blocking this one from making its way onto my personal list of Arcade Fire favorites, honestly.
7. Infinite Content
The album’s centerpiece, after which they named their tour, is actually made up of two rather short songs with identical lyrics and melodies, in drastically different genres. The first half is a rowdy punk song (with a violin solo in the middle of it, ’cause that’s just how Arcade Fire rolls), that immediately puts a smile on my face due to its sheer force of will, but then it begins to lose me when I realize it’s basically a one-joke sketch: “Infinite content, infinite content, we’re infinitely content!” There’s a verse that adds literally one more line of lyrics to this refrain, and that’s pretty much it. I suppose they’re mocking the very notion that a band could promise you anything truly unlimited – but once I get the joke, there’s honestly not that much left to stick around for.
The counterpart track abruptly shifts to a lazy, country-western sort of vibe, not too far off from some of the mellower tracks on The Suburbs, in order to drive home the same point that we just heard, but with twangy slide guitars instead of rowdy rock guitars. I really wish that there was more to this, because I’ve gotten used to Arcade Fire’s tendency to switch up rhythms or even genres mid-song, and I think there was great potential to really surprise the audience by taking an unexpected emotional turn for the second half of the song. It’s squandered by simply repeating the same lyrical pun that honestly wasn’t all that funny the first time we heard it.
9. Electric Blue
When Régine takes over lead vocals for a song, it’s almost always a highlight. “Haiti”, “In the Back Seat”, “Sprawl II”, “Empty Room”, “Hey Orpheus”… I would say the list goes on, but actually, that’s most of ’em. Here, she’s accompanied by a pretty catchy beat and some even more cartoonish synths than the band’s usual – not a bad setup considering the overall mood of this record, but she squanders it a bit by singing in an almost inhuman falsetto for most of it. Her voice is already pretty high-pitched, and I will say it’s technically impressive if she’s hitting some of these stratospheric notes unassisted. But the end result ventures pretty deep into the uncanny valley. It really doesn’t help that there’s a rather irritating synth effect backing up her incessant “na-na-na” hook that is about as much fun as having a fly constantly buzzing around your head that you can’t manage to swat. Aside from that, the song’s a real earworm, which paradoxically makes it even more annoying when it gets stuck in my head well after the album has ended. There are some good lyrical ideas here – she seems to be lost in a sea of identical-looking women all trying to please identical-looking men, and it’s especially jarring when her innocent-sounding voice delivers the line “I can’t get my head around it/I thought I found it/But I found out I don’t know shit” in the chorus. But the better creative impulses in this song, once again, unfortunately get buried in the repetition.
10. Good God Damn
Remember that line from “Creature Comfort” about a woman getting so depressed that she wants to drown herself in the bathtub with Funeral as the soundtrack? Well, Arcade Fire wants to make damn sure you don’t forget it, because that same scenario also serves as a springboard for this song, which seems at first to be one of the moodiest and ugliest things they’ve ever written. The sparse presentation, with a bass groove, stabs of electric guitar, eerie synths, and an uncluttered drum beat, almost reminds me of a down-tempo Cake jam. It’s an intriguing setup, but honestly this might be my least favorite track that Arcade Fire has ever put on an album. I know I complained about “Wasted Hours” and “Here Comes the Night Time II”, but those felt like filler on albums that had enough content for them to not be really necessary. This one is downright obtrusive. I don’t mind that the song is dark, or even necessarily that it uses the phrase “God damn” quite liberally, but Win’s vocals are at their whiniest here, which means that combined with his attempt to put himself in this person’s shoes and say “screw you” to the world on the way out, this character runs the risk of sounding more cynical than sympathetic. What I will admit is clever here is how the phrase “Maybe there’s a good God damn” has just the right pause in the delivery to make it clear that the person who is about to give up on this cruel world is having the last-minute thought that “Maybe there’s a good God… Damn.” In other words, maybe there is benevolent force out there afterwards that had something better in mind for me. That’s made more explicit at the end when Win tacks on “Maybe there’s a good God… if he made you.” Still, the sheer number of times that an already dull chorus melody with very few words to it gets repeated makes this song an absolute chore to get through. You want the listener to feel some despair here, maybe even to the point where it makes the song hard to listen to, but you don’t want them to feel apathy or wish that they would just get on with it already, and that’s where this one fails.
11. Put Your Money on Me
While Régine only gets one true lead vocal on this album, I like how prominent she is in her role as a backing vocalist complementing her husband here, on another synth-heavy, dance floor-ready track that, against all odds, finds something lasting in the pile of superficial trash and declares it to be worth living for. Win is pleading for the woman he loves to bet all of her chips on him, essentially, and while on the surface level it seems like a simple enough ode to a good marriage that they’ve had to fight hard to keep intact, I think the talk about money, the things it can buy and the things it can be invested in, help it to stand out as a deliberate contrast to some of the album’s other odes to plentiful, material commodities that we’re always being barraged with opportunities to spend our money on. The line “Never gonna leave you, even when it’s easy” makes me stop for a second and think, “Wait, shouldn’t he be saying he won’t leave her even when it’s hard? Why would he be tempted to leave when it’s easy?” So much of this record is about the pitfalls of excess. Having lots of money in a time when business is booming and your corporate empire’s riding a wave of pop culture recognition brings a lot of temptation with it. Why take the time to cultivate love when you can simply buy it, or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof? I think this song’s about not taking the easy way out in times of prosperity, and remembering the ones who stuck with you through times of poverty. I tend to gravitate toward love songs that find creative ways to describe something that is truly lasting, so while this is an unorthodox entry in that category, it really speaks to me.
12. We Don’t Deserve Love
I think we all know to expect an emotional gut-punch at this point. With the exception of The Suburbs, which had so much material that it didn’t need a long comedown after the high of “Sprawl II”, the rest of their albums have had a big, up-tempo penultimate track followed by a rather downbeat and tragic finale. This one may not be as climactic as some of the others, but the unique instrumentation definitely puts me in a melancholy headspace. The keyboard sounds like it might be a Continuum, due to how the notes are “smeared” as the chords change up and down in unconventional ways, rather than simply moving from one discrete note to the next. This complements the steel guitar that gives it a wistful, country feel – an unexpected blending of earthy and electronic elements that the band has played with before, but never at the same time as far as I can recall. This song takes its sweet time, at over six minutes long, but since it’s got a slower pace and plenty of lyrics to justify its runtime, it seems to still be building toward a point worth making rather than running on fumes. Disillusionment with a constant barrage of trashy, commercial music and television seems to start it off, and there’s a numbed-out couple trying to work out their issues with each other against this backdrop of useless noise, either too tired or too distracted to really work out why they’ve grown cold toward each other. By the end of the song, Win’s laying down some pretty heavy metaphors about Mary rolling the stone away from the tomb and Christ not being there for her. We know from past Arcade Fire records (particularly Neon Bible) that Win Butler hasn’t had the greatest experiences with religion, so this isn’t necessarily surprising or shocking, but the notion that someone could be waiting on the validation that they deserve love, and getting no such thing from the people who are supposed to represent Christ in our modern, media-saturated world, is just devastating. Rather than be offended, this song makes me sad for people in my own past who I have naively shown more judgment than love.
13. Everything Now (Continued)
Oh hey, it’s the title track! Or more accurately, the same downbeat reflection of it that the album opened on, expanded out a little bit longer to bring a bit of symmetry to the original lyrics. As Win’s mood goes from “in the black again” to “in the red again” – a time of surplus to a time of debt and desperation – there doesn’t seem to be a conclusive meaning here beyond the idea that material possessions come and go. But I like how the song lets a teeny bit of light in by having the strings reprise the piano melody from the title track, right before the album abruptly cuts off right where you’d expect the barrage of noise to start up again. The rather awkward opening track actually had me expecting that the album would end suddenly and be intended to wrap right back around to that same moment, but if you listen to it on a loop, it actually doesn’t sync up very well at all. This feels like a missed opportunity to have the album play as a sort of infinite cycle.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Everything_Now (Continued) $0
Everything Now $2
Signs of Life $1.75
Create Comfort $1.50
Peter Pan $.75
Infinite Content/Infinite_Content $.75
Electric Blue $.50
Good God Damn –$.50
Put Your Money on Me $1.50
We Don’t Deserve Love $1.75
Everything Now (Continued) $.25
Win Butler: Lead and backing vocals, guitar, piano, keyboards, bass, mandolin
Régine Chassagne: Lead and backing vocals, accordion, drums, percussion, piano, keyboards, hurdy gurdy, recorder
Richard Reed Parry: Guitar, bass, double bass, piano, keyboards, synthesizers, organ, celesta, accordion, drums, percussion, backing vocals
William Butler: Synth, bass, guitar, percussion, sitar, panpipes, trombone, omnichord, musical saw, double bass, concertina, clarinet, gadulka, backing vocals
Tim Kingsbury: Bass, guitar, double bass, keyboards, backing vocals
Jeremy Gara – drums, percussion, guitar, keyboards
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: