Felix Quinonez Jr.
Ambition is a tricky thing for any band. It’s a tightrope that they have to precariously navigate. Not having enough of it causes fans to lose interest and turn away. But bands that are too ambitious often alienate and lose listeners as well.
And Arcade Fire’s ambitious new album, Everything Now has proven to be very divisive for fans and critics alike. Their experimentation hasn’t been as warmly received as on their past records. But for those that have been paying attention, the album is a natural progression from Reflektor.
And honestly, the last thing we need is another band playing it safe. Arcade Fire is wiling to take chances when sticking to what works might be a more popular, lucrative alternative. And even if they didn’t deliver a great songs, that would be commendable. But fortunately for us, they did.
When their first album Funeral came out, in 2004, many were quick to label them the natural successors to u2. That album was anthemic and universally loved. It dealt with heavy themes like loss and grieving. It’s also the one most people refer to when they talk about Arcade Fire’s “natural” sound. It’s the one they wish the band would go back to when they complain about the band’s experimentations with dance music.
But if you look back at their career, experimentation has always been part of their style. Neon Bible, released in 2007, was at the time seen as a big departure from their sound and it, predictably, divided fans.
Three years later, they followed that up with The Suburbs. While many people wasted no time, referring to The Suburbs as a “return to form” it would be crazy and lazy to call it Funeral pt. 2. It was however their moment to shine. The album received widespread acclaim and many referred to it as their “masterpiece.” It eventually won the Grammy for album of the year and catapulted the band into the stratosphere.
But it also left them in a tricky situation for their follow up album, Reflektor, released in 2013. They could either stay on course or switch things up. They chose the latter and the result is a change that is reminiscent of the transformation that u2 underwent with Achtung Baby. And although it initially received great reviews, it also divided fans. And it hasn’t had an enduring impact like their earlier albums.
And with Everything Now, the band has doubled down on the dance music elements and the result is a bold, beautiful and ultimately moving, if uneven album. It’s grandiose and heartfelt. But it’s an album that requires some patience. Not all the songs grab you immediately and there are a couple that might leave you scratching your head. But the album grows on you and eventually it reveals the beauty of the songs.
Musically the album is adventurous and eclectic. If they were testing the dance music waters on Reflektor, here they have jumped in all the way. And like Reflektor, which featured LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, Everything Now also has some big name producers. Thomas Bangalter (half of Daft Punk), Steve Mackey (Pulp’s bassist), and Markus Dravs (a longtime Arcade Fire collaborator) are all producers on the album.
A lot has been said about the album’s short running time. And it is definitely shorter than Reflektor and The Suburbs but it’s right around the same length of their first two albums. And it’s even longer than Neon Bible.
The album opens with the short Everything_Now (continued). It’s a reworked snippet of the title track that, while entertaining, doesn’t really paint a clear picture of the album that follows. It does however perfectly segue into the title track.
As it has already been, repeatedly, pointed out, Everything Now, the first single does sound like Abba but it also sounds like…Arcade Fire. More importantly it’s an infectious, breezy song that has plenty of emotional weight beneath its pretty surface. It might, initially, seem like a slight song but its shiny veneer belies the heavy themes of disillusionment and alienation that it deals with.
Signs of Life follows and continues the dance party vibes. The song is immediately catchy and memorable. A lot of derision was aimed at this song because of Win Butler’s subpar rapping. But he doesn’t actually rap so the insults are silly. The song is energetic and fun, employing horns, handclaps, and even police sirens to great effect. And it keeps the momentum going.
But the mood abruptly changes with Creature Comfort. The song is about the disconnect that is, ironically, a result of being constantly connected through social media. The lyrics are dark but powerful and moving. In one of the record’s most poignant lines, Win Butler sings about a girl who “Came so close/ Filled up the bathtub and put on our first record.” It’s heavy stuff but also affirming in that it acknowledges the fact that real tragedy is often overlooked while we obsess on minor details.
It’s a deeply touching song and a great way to end a nearly flawless first act. Unfortunately the album takes an almost bafflingly odd turn. Peter Pan isn’t a bad song per se but it’s undeniably a filler track. And while Chemistry fuses Jamaican ska rhythm and a catchy pop chorus it never rises above simple pastiche. They’re both enjoyable enough that you don’t have to skip them but they’re also completely forgettable, especially since they follow a succession of three songs that could easily fit on any “best of” compilation.
And things don’t really get any better with Infinite Content and Infinite_Content. They’re the same song done in two different styles. The first part is an upbeat energetic, almost punk song. It calls to mind Month of May off The Suburbs. And the second part is a laid back acoustic, almost country song.
But it’s also a cheap gimmick that was probably more clever in theory than execution. And the lyrics…well, they’re not impressive. However they’re short and harmless enough but having four filler tracks in a row is definitely disappointing. Things do pick up immediately after that and the album has another uninterrupted stretch of great songs.
Electric Blue is one of the most beautiful songs the band has ever done. It is a standout track with a wonderful, moving vocal performance by Regine Chassagne. Good God Damn follows and is one of the most enjoyable tracks on the album. It’s a tight, catchy funk song. Put Your Money on Me is also a very catchy song that stays with you. It has very strong vocals and it calls back to Abba. We don’t deserve love follows and is the album’s centerpiece. The song is moving and powerful. It easily fits among the band’s best work.
And the album closes with Everything Now (continued). In a neat trick, the album ends the way it started. Like its opening counterpart this is a reworked snippet from the title track. So that if you play the album on repeat, the ending syncs up with the beginning to create an infinite loop.
It’s hard to say how this album will be remembered. It has too many great songs to overlook and at least four of them are simply amazing. (Everything Now, Creature Comfort, Electric Blue, We Don’t Deserve Love) But there’s also an undeniably weak stretch that brings down the rest of the album as a body of work. Those four songs (Peter Pan, Chemistry, Infinite Content, and Infinite_Content) feel like an island onto themselves. Quality wise, they feel completely separate from the rest of the album.
Even the best albums have at least one weak track but four is a lot. And the fact that the weak songs on Everything Now come one after another seems to make it worse. Also, when you take out the two refrains, the album really only has 11 songs so four is a big portion of that.
In the end it seems that the album’s concept got away from them. And that’s too bad because regardless of the concept, the quality of the songs is still the most important part. Maybe if the band remembered that some of these songs would have ended up on the cutting room floor. It’s hard to believe that Infinite Content and its counterpart would have made it on the album if not for the concept.
Everything Now is definitely not the misfire people want it to be. It has enough great songs tot make the album worth buying. A few of them might even be called their best but unfortunately that doesn’t change the fact that it also has songs that are definitely their worst. And that very shoddy section keeps Everything Now from reaching the heights of their previous albums.
But all bands have a weak album in their discography. And up until now Arcade Fire was basically batting 1000. In fact picking their best album is a very hard thing to do and has led to many disagreements among fans. But at least the band made it easy for us to all agree that Everything Now is their worst. But to be clear, the worst Arcade Fire is still pretty damn great.