I’ve never entirely agreed with the common suggestion that Arcade Fire are this generation’s U2. Of course there have always been some similarities between the two; both bands have an uncomfortable love of silly hats and costumes, and both bands rose to fame by writing big open-hearted indie rock. But Arcade Fire have never been as big as U2, nor have they ever looked like they wanted to be. U2 made music that was designed, sometimes cynically, for everyone. Arcade Fire have always seemed to be on the side of the outsiders. Their music has often felt like a sanctuary for those who are uncomfortable with the direction of the world, focussing their lyrics on the dismantling of quiet suburban lives and the sensory overstimulation of the 21st century. Even their last album, the distinctly pricklier, confrontational Reflektor, contained moments that reached out a welcoming hand to the freaks and geeks of the world. Despite the band’s international success in recent years, Arcade Fire are still likely to be remembered as an alternative band.
Naturally, the U2 comparison has meant that there’s an attempt to fit Everything Now into this narrative. Most often, this means that Everything Now is being talked about like it’s Arcade Fire’s Zooropa, referencing U2’s 1995 attempt to sever themselves from the mainstream by embracing trip-hop and downtempo. Bar a few tracks, it sounded almost nothing like a U2 album and threatened to sink a career that until then had looked unsinkable. However, Everything Now is not that sort of album. In fact, excluding a few baffling detours, it’s an album that largely continues in the direction that the band have been heading in since The Suburbs. On this new album, Arcade Fire have taken the dance-pop elements of Reflektor and fused them with the more traditional melodies on their past records.
So if Arcade Fire are not U2, then what sort of band are they? I’d argue that the band that most clearly mirrors their career so far is REM. Sure, the two bands don’t sound alike; REM were an antithesis to the synth-pop that dominated much of 80s, while Arcade Fire have clearly been influenced by that genre. But in terms of their slow growth from critically acclaimed indie-darlings to mainstream acceptance, the two bands have had similar careers. In 1990, REM found themselves on the cusp of major mainstream success; they just needed one big album to push them over the line. Out of Time, the record they ended up making, was an odd compromise that helped them achieve it. It still sounded like an REM record but it was one that had been commercialised, arguably neutered, with some incongruous contemporary sounds added in. In retrospect, the album is generally seen as one of REM’s weaker efforts, mainly because of a few bad decisions and a generally unadventurous sound that hoped to reach the broadest possible audience. While Everything Now doesn’t sound like Out of Time or any REM album, it largely suffers for the same reasons.
Everything Now sounds like the first Arcade Fire album that cares that a lot of people are going to hear it. The band’s aggressive and draining marketing campaign based around evil faceless corporations, fake news, and gimmicky merchandise, pretty much guarantees that it’ll receive more attention than usual from the music press. Does all this increased exposure mean that the band are confident that they’ve got a masterpiece to release? Maybe, but I highly doubt anyone else will see it that way. In fact, Everything Now ranks easily as the band’s most underwritten and ill-conceived album to date. It lacks the heart of Funeral or the darkness of Neon Bible and fails to live up to the conceptual storytelling of The Suburbs or the adventurous of Reflektor. The only thing this album beats its predecessors with is with its accessibility. Like the most nauseatingly simplistic Banksy artworks, the songs on Everything Now are easy to understand on first listen because they only attempt to scratch the surface of their subjects. Win Butler and co. set their sights on a target, make their point and leave without giving enough time to the complexity of what they’re talking about. The result is that the ideas expressed on Everything Now have almost all been explored more elegantly and with great depths on past Arcade Fire album.
However, it would be wrong to say that this album is a disaster. It ranks firmly below the band’s past work but there are still many moments here that are worth listening to, even if they rarely come together as completely satisfying songs. Although it’s received a muted response from hardcore fans, the title track is a strong lead single that swings blissfully with a ‘Dancing Queen’ groove and David Byrne-esque lyrics. It might work as a blunt instrument but either by design or accident, the song does capture a sense of both the joy and discomfort of living with the information overload of the present day. Very few songs on the rest of Everything Now feel as nuanced or as effective. The album’s other major single, ‘Creature Comfort’, marries buzzing synthesizers with forceful call-and-response vocals to great effect. But while the instrumental is satisfyingly clunky, its lyrics, which touch awkwardly on self-harm and suicide, are not.
Elsewhere, ‘Put Your Money on Me’ is another entertaining ABBA tribute that’s let down by the absence of a memorable chorus and ‘We Don’t Deserve Love’ is a heartfelt country ballad reimagined for the digital age. But while these songs are pleasant and well-constructed, they are uninspiring when compared to the highlights on previous albums. What’s worse is that while Everything Now is low on memorable highlights, its worst tracks are often more memorable than its successes. No more so is that clear than with ‘Chemistry’, a Frankenstein’s monster of cabaret music, 70s rock riffs, and excruciating chat-up lines, that’s so bad that it’s baffling to think it was signed off by every member of the band. The other notable failure is ‘Infinite Content’, a two-parter that moves surprisingly gracefully from punk rock to country but is weighed down by an embarrassing refrain – ‘Infinite content/We’re infinitely content’. If I was being extremely generous, I might be able to call it amusing but simply repeating that refrain 5 times is not a good way to write a song, even one that’s only a minute and a half long. Every other one of the album’s 13 tracks is either a poorly executed attempt at a good idea, forgettable filler, or an intro/reprise for ‘Everything Now’.
In short, Everything Now is an unsatisfying mess. Despite being nearly half the length of Reflektor, it feels like a longer slog, mainly because it amplifies many of the band’s worst flaws. But because Arcade Fire are, or at least were, a great band, it just about manages to limp over the line of respectability. Although Everything Now is a deflating listen for a fan of the band, new listeners will probably view it more kindly. There are a lot of good things about this album, once you get beyond its pompous preaching, and to return to that REM comparison, it’s worth remembering how successful Out of Time was and what album followed it. Some have spoken about Everything Now as if it symbolises the end of the line for Arcade Fire but if the critical backlash against this album is as noticeable as many expect it to be, it might give them a chance to re-evaluate what made them so great in the past.
Everything Now gives us satire where we once had heart and muted professionalism where there was once raucous energy. On Funeral, Arcade Fire sounded like the kids who never fitted in at school, building stadium rock on a rehearsal room budget. Now that they’re older and richer, their optimism has turned to cynicism. As much as Everything Now talks a good talk about all the unnecessary noise swirling around nowadays, it does very little to make a case for why it’s any different from it. Cheap gags are briefly entertaining but you can only call out the problems of modern life so many times before people start asking you for a little bit more. Sooner or later you just become another part of the bullshit.