Let’s take a moment to review the “highlights” of the exhausting album cycle for Arcade Fire’s fifth LP, Everything Now — there have been fidget spinners, fake album reviews, facetious Kendall Jenner T-shirts, and a formal dress code for an album-release show that was apparently implemented without the band’s knowledge. Or maybe the dress code was, like, satirical, a bold statement about how the media are sheep who will lap up any content you give them, just as those other gestures tweak the mindlessly corporatized web.
Actually, the dress-code snafu really was the result of miscommunication. As for the other stuff … calling it “satire” doesn’t make it insightful or any less tiresome.
Whether Arcade Fire is the midst of a meltdown or merely trolling, the image of the band that’s become fixed in the public is that of a former underground institution that now seems hopelessly out of touch. Arcade Fire has always flirted with (if not unapologetically embraced) pomposity in its music, but the Everything Now campaign betrays a new dispiriting arrogance that has verged on patronizing toward its audience. Unfortunately, this goes deeper than a few lame publicity stunts. This condescension exists at the very heart of the album.
Early singles from Everything Now, including the title track and “Creature Comfort,” have been strangely sour jeremiads against modern culture that sub out Arcade Fire’s usual earnestness for pungent cynicism about vapid, gluttonous kids. While Arcade Fire’s early work addressed the band’s central obsessions — apathy, empty consumerism, spiritual bankruptcy — from a personal point of view, these songs feel suspiciously like “not us, but them“-style finger-pointing. In the band’s view, the girl in “Creature Comfort” who puts on Arcade Fire’s iconic 2004 debut record Funeral to stave off thoughts of suicide is no longer a person to whom the members can personally relate. Instead, she’s a silly millennial acting out for attention. The universality that Arcade Fire once stridently projected has given way to middle-aged alienation.
While much of the discussion of Arcade Fire’s artistic evolution has concerned the band’s embrace of dance music on its last two albums, it’s the shift in lyrical and thematic perspective that has been most jarring. Amid the rousing bombast of Funeral, Neon Bible, and The Suburbs were intimate statements about the individual struggle to overcome grief, religion, and the limitations imposed by one’s upbringing. Anytime the band critiqued the culture, they implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) included themselves.
But with Reflektor, Arcade Fire’s bloated 2013 LP, this feeling of empathy started to recede in the band’s songs, which addressed the destructiveness of the internet and social media from a colder, grumpier, and more removed point of view. On Everything Now, the “message” songs about young people preoccupied with online fame and “infinite content” are generally directed outward, like clueless newspaper op-eds passed around by cantankerous Gen-Xers on Facebook.
Getting older isn’t easy for any band, but few have struggled as mightily or under as much scrutiny as Arcade Fire. Ever since winning the Grammy for Album Of The Year in 2011, which granted them “biggest band in the world” status in terms of prestige if not quite commercial success, Arcade Fire has been mired in a prolonged identity crisis that’s unfolded under the guise of a haphazard sonic evolution. Whereas the band’s the first three albums are defined by their operatic dynamics — quiet songs that build toward anthems, and anthems that build toward mind-blowing emotional payoffs — Arcade Fire rebooted itself on Reflektor as a groove-oriented band wired for the subtler oscillations of the dance floor.
Speaking strictly in terms of groove, Everything Now is an improvement on the plodding, overstuffed Reflektor, as the album is focused on ’70s-era AM pop as opposed to its predecessor’s grab-bag of styles. Working with a cadre of producers — including Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter and Pulp’s Steve Mackey — who are well-versed in melding rock with dance music, Arcade Fire approximates credible easy-listening funk on the ABBA-biting “Everything Now” and the lightly insinuating “Signs Of Life,” in which Win Butler complains about “cool kids stuck in the past,” a lament that echoes throughout the album.
But after a decent start, Everything Now hits a disastrous stretch of tuneless experiments, including the dance-hall clunker “Chemistry,” the hectoring “Infinite Content,” and the absolutely dire “Peter Pan,” possibly the worst song in Arcade Fire’s entire catalogue. Arcade Fire’s confusion on these tracks is profound and, frankly, embarrassing; this will likely always be a band with a limited range that is simply ill-served by veering outside of its lane.
If you can endure that treacherous valley, the most promising section of Everything Now occurs in the final third, when Butler stops picking on youngsters and dwells on his own anxieties about mortality and marriage. “Put Your Money On Me” and “We Don’t Deserve Love” are deeply sad, middle-of-the-night meditations set to gorgeously twinkling synth-pop that make the tired observations about online media in the record’s first half seem all the more inconsequential. On these songs, the disdain of the opening tracks gives way to an affecting melancholy. “If you wanna know who’ll be there in the end, when you bury me, baby, I’ll still be your friend,” Butler pledges in “Put Your Money On Me,” the album’s most heart-rending moment.
If Arcade Fire had extrapolated this part of Everything Now, and excised the “satire,” it could have achieved its own Tunnel Of Love, a mature breakthrough that thoughtfully explores adult relationships. But that kind of record wouldn’t have accommodated the ironic use of fidget spinners, now would it?
This week, there have been two dominant threads in my social media feed. One thread concerns the ongoing political fight over universal health care, a literal life-and-death struggle for which millions of passionate people have mobilized online. The other was a litany of jokes about Arcade Fire’s dress code. Yes, we are overwhelmed with information. Sure, the media is easily duped. And, I agree, the Internet is mighty stupid sometimes. But Arcade Fire’s marginal, callow album hasn’t transcended the noise, but rather added to it. They now belong in the frivolous thread.