Indie rock has suffered several bouts of severe stagnation throughout its existence, and it has often taken a record of magnitudinous scope, aspiration and spirit to cause a great enough tremor within the music community to break apart such slumps. Without question, no release sent shockwaves through the indie scene of the 2000s like Arcade Fire’s debut album from 2004, Funeral. Matching sleek songwriting skills with ravishing orchestral expanse and baroque timbre, the Montreal-spawned troupe conceived a compositional formula that was undoubtedly familiar, but that nevertheless took indie rock to heaven-bound heights that had seldom been reached before, and certainly not with such ingenuity and elegance. Although faced with the arduous task of following up one of the most universally eulogised albums of the decade, the band’s sophomore record, 2007’s Neon Bible, struck a similar sense of vibrancy and euphoria to its predecessor, even in spite of its emotionally-heavy, heartland lyrical themes that evoked the balladry of American icons such as Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Bob Seeger. After the group equalled themselves yet again with their third album from 2010, The Suburbs, whose brutally honest depiction of suburban America came both as a spiritual successor to the social and communal potency of Neon Bible and as a reflection of the band’s musical maturation and refinement of their sonic palette across the record, Arcade Fire had completely cemented their position as one of indie rock’s most formidable monoliths. As such, the group’s first foray outside of their comfort zone on their last release, 2013’s Reflektor, and into the territory of glamorous dance-rock, despite being their shakiest undertaking up until that point in their career, could nonetheless be respected as an ambitious change of pace and what was arguably their most audacious endeavour thus far in many respects. Although a mixed bag in just about every regard, Reflektor was not without its exceptional moments and signified that further cultivation and focus could see the indie powerhouse begin to make waves in unfamiliar territory, should they choose to continue pursuing this flashy, disco-infused sound. Indeed, upon the unveiling of the eponymous lead single from their newest studio outing, Everything Now, the message was made clear that Arcade Fire were no longer in a transitory state; they had completely rebranded themselves as a dance-rock group. Despite all the efforts that have clearly been poured into attaining a fully-fledged disco-rock sound, however, Arcade Fire’s commitment to polishing their songwriting skills within this new framework seems less apparent. Undoubtedly, the group strike some appropriately colourful highs at points, but, on the whole, Everything Now marks a defined decline in the quality of Arcade Fire’s compositional chops, not to mention the fact that their social commentary has veered drastically off course from their usual aptitude for cognisance and sagacity, instead hitting some rather cynical, smarmy and self-serving points of triteness at times. There may be just enough glitz and glamour in their strokes of disco-flavoured swagger to tide over certain points in the tracklisting, but, at its worst, Everything Now signifies a distinct misstep in Arcade Fire’s path down the dance-rock road.
Although Everything Now is not necessarily the more refined take on the decadent disco-rock displayed on its predecessor that many were hoping for, it has unequivocally cut away much of the fat that can be found on Reflektor and, if nothing else, is a far more focussed and precise record sonically speaking, even if this is by no means the case for Arcade Fire’s songwriting and lyric-writing abilities across the album. With many of these songs being wound in a similar semblance of orchestral dynamism to that which can be found on the band’s first three records, whilst nonetheless not sacrificing the vintage, new wave-tinged grooves and accessible, danceable bombast of its overall stylistic tone, Everything Now witnesses Arcade Fire seemingly attempt to recapture, or at least rework, the grandiosity of their prime material. Whether or not they actually accomplish this is another matter, but the album nevertheless turns out to be rather tight and well-balanced as a result, and the fact that songs such as Good God Damn and Put Your Money On Me can sit right next to each other in the tracklisting without underlining any clear issues of inconsistency is testament to the record’s relatively sturdy structure. Although Good God Damn seemingly mistakes stasis for subtle song progression, with the gradual introduction of looming strings, pattering percussion and fiddly keyboard incidentals not being enough to justify its sluggish structure, the fact that its simple bass groove and funk guitar direct the cut more in the direction of indie rock and new wave than disco, yet still don’t jut out as being out of place next to the burbles and tinkles of retro synthesizers on Put Your Money On Me, highlights just how consistent the core sound of Everything Now is, largely courtesy of its glitzy production value. Indeed, across the course of the tracklisting, Arcade Fire’s sonic reach stretches from the punchy piano melodies of the brazenly ABBA-influenced title track to the deep electronic warbles of Peter Pan, but there is no real point at which the group’s artistic vision seems to fall out of sight.
Of course, as much as Everything Now can surely be credited for its cohesion and overarching unity within a defined stylistic framework, that’s not to say that Arcade Fire’s desire for a charismatic dance-rock sound turns out to be as flashy as they intended. Despite the splashes of synths, the symphonic swells and a generally extensive array of instrumentation, even by Arcade Fire’s standards, much of Everything Now comes across as oddly downplayed and, at the worst of times, somewhat flat. Whilst the production quality undoubtedly plays a part in this, perhaps the salient contributing factor arises from the group themselves, specifically relating to how well Arcade Fire, as musicians, are able to fully acclimatise to the record’s comprehensive tone shift. It’s arguably Win Butler and wife Régine Chassagne’s vocals that suffer the most from the stylistic reinvention marked on Everything Now. Butler quite simply lacks the charisma, the firepower or the rambunctiousness necessary to feel like a natural fit for many of these cuts, with Creature Comfort seeing the singer let loose far more than usual, to the point of pursuing a preacher-like performance at times, atop the synthpop propulsion of the hammering electronic grooves, which ultimately comes across as contrived. Even on a song such as the aforementioned Good God Damn — which plays more towards the territory of Arcade Fire’s previous output, even if it’s considerably more subdued than much of the material across the band’s first three records — Butler seems to be striving for a slightly sensual edge to his vocals that ends up sounding rather dull and lifeless. Unequivocally, however, the most blatant blunder concerning the vocals across Everything Now comes in the form of Chassagne’s lead role on Electric Blue, wherein her attempts at a rapturous falsetto strike nothing but shrillness for a significant portion of the song, which becomes all the more unbearable when paired with the ugly moaning of some of the synths utilised across the cut. These obvious vocal pitfalls, as well as the muffled guitar tones of tracks like Chemistry and Infinite Content that fall short of packing the punch they seem to be pursuing, point to some inescapable instances of incompatibility between Arcade Fire’s musical disciplines and the sound they wish to achieve on Everything Now that were clearly not resolved prior to the recording of the album.
Although the musical motifs of Everything Now mark a decided departure for Arcade Fire from their past output, its socially-conscious lyrical themes have long since existed as a central characteristic of the group’s definitive artistic identity. More so compared to their previous albums, however, Arcade Fire’s latest project assumes a defined deconstructive angle in its commentary on mental illness, loneliness and perception of reality in the current technological age. Yet, a trend that recurs far too often is Butler’s unconscious ability to blunt the emotional impact of many of the topics to appear throughout the tracklisting by allowing himself to overstep his role as a storyteller, with his narrations occasionally devolving into purposeless navel-gazing. Out of all the subjects covered across the album, for some reason, it’s the singer’s observations on suicide that tend to swerve off course and veer dangerously close to complacency at points. On Creature Comfort, for instance, the fact that Butler’s depiction of a girl’s suicidal tendencies is framed more around his own assessment of whether or not listening to Funeral contributed to this girl’s mental health issues, as opposed to the actual experiences of the girl herself, reads as such an obscene case of self-importance that the only feeling evoked in the listener is one of exasperation. Although Good God Damn alludes to this exact scene in its first verse and does absolutely nothing constructive with this idea to warrant its reference, the wordplay at the core of the song’s lyrical concept is admirably droll, with the protagonist weighing up the efficacy of relying on either religion or humanity for support, contemplating whether or not there is a “good God” or a “good goddamn”, that is to say a person who truly cares about them. At other points over the course of the record, however, Arcade Fire seem to surrender to their points of social criticism, which emphasises a lack of self-awareness that Butler et al. have never demonstrated to this extent before. The penultimate song in the tracklisting, We Don’t Deserve Love, epitomises this lyrical blindspot. Between Butler lambasting radio for its “terrible” songs and cynically referencing laugh tracks on TV as if mainstream networks are simply a superficial distraction from life’s genuine struggles, it seemed as if a point in the song wherein the singer would address the fact that this record is unequivocally Arcade Fire’s most accessible and middle-of-the-road to date and provide some sort of self-deprecating witticism was inevitable, but no such moment transpires, leaving the entire fabric of the album’s satirical purpose in an incredibly unclear position. It almost seems as if that, in attempting to deconstruct certain tropes that can be found in lyrics of a socially-conscious nature, Butler inadvertently succumbed to them instead, leaving Everything Now as a flaccid statement by Arcade Fire’s standards.
On the surface, there is perhaps a lot that can be appreciated about Everything Now. Both stylistically and sonically, it makes for a tight and cohesive listening experience overall, whilst its timbral range and inclusive capacity within the dance-rock style could surely make for a pleasing enough aesthetic for plenty of people to enjoy. Outside of such superficial elements, however, Everything Now grows increasingly frustrating the more thought the listener invests into it, as neither the band’s performances nor Butler’s lyrical explorations hold up well against the same scrutiny that would be applied to past Arcade Fire projects. Of course, Everything Now is such a drastically different release compared to the group’s first three albums that it would be unfair to critique them by the same metrics. This being said, scrutinising the record within the context of its dance-rock rebranding for Arcade Fire reveals that, although there are points in which the band strikes a potent balance between the grandiosity of their early output and their recent disco reinvention, much of Everything Now reads as somewhat of an identity crisis, with the group yet to have found their footing on the dance floor.
The Vinyl Verdict: 5.5/10