People want things from Arcade Fire. They want escapism, transcendence, innocence celebrated in the moment of its loss, wah-oh choruses. They want protest songs, hope, the romance of two married artists leading a volunteer army of lovers. They want string sections, synthesizers, parade drums, cracked tambourines, one last going-supernova chance for rock ’n’ roll. People also want nothing from Arcade Fire, except that they shut up and go away. The band’s new album, Everything Now, answers both sides, loud and unclear. It turns its back even as it reaches out its hands. It sounds great, and it sounds terrible, sometimes great because it sounds terrible. It’s a response to an impossible demand, one that nobody explicitly made but was nonetheless inescapable. Under these circumstances, there’s no failure like success.
Here is a group that formed in 2001, immaculately conceived from the skull of an expatriate Texan and the gods of disaster, hatching in Montreal, hundreds of miles away but in another sense directly out of the crater at Ground Zero. A baby Godzilla, roaring and needy and gazing with fresh, wet eyes on a world newly broken. Everyone thought they were the worst band in town, and then two or three years later the best band in the world, which they still might be in concert. Word spread like a software virus, igniting a label bidding war. They opted for a mom-and-pop operation like their own, North Carolina indie label Merge Records, and stuck by it through four albums, through world tours and Grammy awards, until just now.
And now here they are after more than 15 years, the sort of time span that molts Beatles into Wings, Jefferson Airplanes into Starships. The mom-and-pop of Arcade Fire, Régine Chassagne and Win Butler, are literally a mom and a pop. Members have come and gone and made solo records, and the leaders traded one French-culture bohemian enclave for another, moving from Montreal to New Orleans. There’s that new contract with Sony/Columbia. And what does anyone want with a middle-aged rock band? Nothing and everything. That’s been the band’s burden ever since its initial arc culminated with its third, easiest-to-embrace album, The Suburbs (the Grammy-winning one): What best becomes an aging monster, spawned by the radiation of a moment, but now condemned to stalk the earth, waiting out its mortal lifespan?
On 2013’s Reflektor, the band’s overwhelmedness was palpable as it went for baroque, stuffing songs to the fraying seams with disco and Haitian konpa, literary allusions and mutant prog, in ways that came off like overcomplicated instructional diagrams for a dance party.
Everything Now, by contrast, steps lighter and meets the ear with as much craft as any recent album you could name, which makes most of it a joy to hear. Except that when any of the two or three (I might grant you four) lousy songs come on, they sound proportionately worse for being so well-recorded. Two in a row, just before the middle, “Peter Pan” and “Chemistry,” are, both musically and lyrically, not fit to clean the scum from the bottom of the other songs’ boots. They must have been in contention with a couple of far superior songs to make it onto the album, until everyone concerned had listened to them too much and become confused. (My theory is that “Chemistry,” a creepy come-on song set to baffling synthetic ska, was meant to be a parodic answer to “Blurred Lines,” but in the four years that Everything Now was in preparation, that song got so thoroughly demolished in both the court of public opinion and actual courts of law that “Chemistry” ends up swinging at air.)
The other, smaller problem, which is not nearly so bad as many critics have claimed, is that Arcade Fire (or at least Win Butler, the primary lyricist) was misled at an impressionable age by Radiohead’s OK Computer to think that anxious references to recent technology make for incisive rock lyrics. (I can only bear OK Computer when I completely ignore what it’s supposed to be about.) This was already an overarching theme on Reflektor, and it continues here. In fact, the thoughts about technological change that can be fit into pop songs are going to be thoughts anyone with half a brain has already had, at least about technology as a consumer experience. (I’d welcome plenty more music that dealt with technology as soundscape or mode of labor.) And because Arcade Fire is permanently built on a mid-2000s blueprint, every time it tries to address, say, social media, it sounds like a just-awakened Rip Van Winkle.
However, because the band is never overliteral about platforms and devices, the way that it’s singing about consumerist excess isn’t really as dated as some listeners are taking it—rock ’n’ roll has been going on about loving and hating consumerism simultaneously since the 1950s. Not only is that just fine, it’s built right into the form. More importantly, the band is never singing solely about consumerism. It’s singing about the exhausting cycle of desire, a hoary old chestnut ever since Gautama Buddha had a big hit with it back in 500 BCE. Anyone who hears it merely as cynical snark is willfully shutting out how much the band implicates itself in both the indulgences and the consequences of indulgence. That’s what the dance music is there for. In the irresistibly orchestrated and ABBA piano–pilfering title track, the first example given of the too-much-ness of life isn’t the selfie-evoking line about every smile being fake, but the couplet, “Every inch of sky’s got a star/ Every inch of skin’s got a scar.” That’s not about Instagram. It’s about being full-grown.
Likewise, the couple of lushly layered love songs near the end of the cycle, which critics generally have praised and then used as sticks to cudgel the rest of the album, are not there just as balance or antidote to the social ills. They’re further illustrations. They’re about troubled and importuning love, love as ego gratification and self-martyrdom, just as double-edged as all the other varieties of wanting. It is not so different, the arc of the album suggests, to want to hear every song at once and to want our loves to last eternally. These are crimes in which we’re all accomplices and miracles for which we’re all supplicants.
This is why the album Everything Now reminds me of isn’t OK Computer or (as many have suggested) U2’s Zooropa and Pop, but Pulp’s 1998 This Is Hardcore. It came to mind because Pulp bassist Steve Mackey is one of the co-producers here (along with Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter, Portishead’s Geoff Barrow, and others), but also because they’re both late-cycle albums about being saturated and nauseated by desires, your own and those directed at you. One day this week I accidentally played “Everything Now” and Hardcore’s opener “The Fear” atop each other, and while one is upbeat and the other downtrodden, their pianos and strings and choirs tangled around each other like amorous snakes. Win Butler’s American yearning is nothing like Jarvis Cocker’s European blues, but these lyrics from “The Fear” seem to me like they could be bannered across Everything Now’s cover photograph of an artificially altered Death Valley landscape: “This is the sound of someone losing the plot/ Making out that they’re OK when they’re not/ You’re gonna like it, but not a lot.”
Arcade Fire unfortunately undermined that kind of hearing of Everything Now with its much-derided prepublicity campaign, which tried to satirize the era of “fake news” with a torrent of postings from its supposed new corporate employer Everything Now Corp., advertising phony spinoff products and claiming Arcade Fire was suing other bands for stealing its “millennial whoop” and even putting out a pre-emptive review of its own album. What started as a few decent jokes became an avalanche of repetitive blanket coverage. It’s a really old joke, too—the Vancouver conceptual artists N.E. Thing Co. were doing it in the late 1960s, as well as their 1980s-Toronto heirs General Idea, and every psuedo-situationist satirical zine and website in the 1990s. An overdone parody tends to become the thing it is parodying. This was probably deliberate (it’s in keeping with some of the strategies of the album itself), but it also seemed like an attempt to divert criticism from the fact that the band actually has signed to a megacorporation now, and also a somewhat wounded and defensive reaction to the criticism that was directed at Reflektor. It might have been worth it if Everything Now were actually a parody media-pastiche album itself, say in the spirit of Negativland’s Helter Stupid, but it isn’t, thank goodness. (It is also, happily, not in any direct way a protest album about Donald Trump, which with the precedent of Arcade Fire’s Bush-era album Neon Bible, seemed another possible direction. That kind of topicality was left to a one-off techno-gospel single with Mavis Staples in January, which is not on the album.)
That anti-publicity publicity campaign primed listeners for a much more cynical, negative-minded work. Arcade Fire might feel pressured to be everything, but one thing the band ain’t is a bunch of comedians. Its humor is best expressed musically—the words to the two-part hinge song in the middle of the album, “Infinite Content”/“Infinite_Content” are a fairly lame pun (“Infinite content/ We’re infinitely content”), but the music, transitioning from a frantic punk chant to a loping Americana twang, is outright delightful.
Such games with tone are crucial to Everything Now overall, never more complicatedly than on “Creature Comfort.” It’s a heartbreaking song about adolescents and suicide that’s delivered in a nerve-jangling new wave style, with Butler shout-singing (à la David Byrne or LCD Soundsystem) in ways that could make the treatment seem glib. There’s an especially startling line about a girl attempting to kill herself: “She told me she came so close/ Filled up the bathtub and put on our first record.” Butler calls it out with a kind of mock-heroism, a cry that vacuums in and scrambles all the “your album saved my life” stories that a band like Arcade Fire will hear about itself. But then the song reaches a bridge, in which he gently sings, “It’s not painless/ She was a friend of mine,” and the way the rest of the song tries to articulate the inarticulable, the complete confusion of finding oneself young and alive and in pain, comes into high resolution. (The bathtub suicide attempt, whether fictional or factual, is described again in the second half of the album, on “Good God Damn,” which takes a different route through fear and pessimism but likewise ends up insisting that survival is the better bet.)
I’ve gotten this far and said nearly zilch about the many splendored kinds of synthesizer twinkles and buzzcuts on Everything Now, or how this album for the first time sufficiently showcases Régine Chassagne’s voice both in duet and solo (particularly on the David Bowie subliminal tribute song “Electric Blue”), or, less happily, the times when Butler’s shout-sing tips over the edge from “Life During Wartime” to “Wham Rap!” Or again, simply how eminently, generously listenable the album ultimately is, so long as you nip out for a smoke or something during “Peter Pan” and “Chemistry.” For all the freight it has to carry, it has the right amount of ballast.
If I let myself, I can stop asking whether Arcade Fire is too ambitious or not enough, or just plain ridiculous. I’m not sure what it’s supposed to want or what I’m supposed to want from it. Hell, I’ve been lingering around, stubbornly continuing to exist, even longer than it has, and I don’t hear Arcade Fire asking me why I don’t just give it up. Or perhaps I do, but then I also hear, no, let’s not, just yet. It may not be much, but it’s enough to goad me to lumber into another goddamn dawn.