Society sucks, as does scolding from a band who should know better
by Jericho Cerrona
If there's a trajectory to the ever declining state of Western Civilization ( be it economical, political, artistic, psychological, whatever), then the post-Trump era seems to be the tipping point. At least, that's what indie rock icons Arcade Fire would have us all believe. To be fair, this regression into tyrannical anarchy isn't really anything new. Even taking a cursory glance at history reveals the cyclical nature of this decline--wars, political hypocrisy, racial unrest--that is part and parcel of humanity's narrative, American or otherwise. That said, there are few torchbearers less adept at handling what can be perceived as a slide into irony than Arcade Fire. This is a group of multi-instrumentalists who blew open the modern indie rock landscape with their effervescent 2004 debut, Funeral, and later distilled the notion of nostalgic small town Americana on Grammy-winning LP The Suburbs. Even when things got somber, like on their sophomore effort Neon Bible, there was grandstanding declarations of hope and renewal breaking through the hazy fog. For better or worse, being critical and commercial darlings of a certain kind of rock n'roll bombast meant that when the perceived universe went to shit in 2017, there were expectations that somehow, Arcade Fire would offer some form of relief.
Instead, the group's fifth studio album Everything Now, represents a marked shift away from the kind of optimistic joy (mixed with darkness) they've been dabbling in for over a decade. Like their previous record, 2013's sprawling new wave/disco-influenced Reflektor, stripping away the earnest stadium-ready sound of the past and moving onto strobe-lit dance floors feels like a stark reaction to public perception. Accusations of pretentiousness and U2-level Messiah complexes (particularly when it came to singer Win Butler) have been leveled at the band for years, but up until now, Arcade Fire have been able to back up their oversized ambitions with legitimate songwriting. Everything Now trades in the guitars for synthesizers, millennial uplift for Trump-era cynicism, and coherent tunes for egomaniacal finger-pointing. This attempt to "lighten up" and make a dance record about the inherent fakeness of our content-binge culture isn't a terrible idea on it's face. It's simply that irony doesn't suit a band like Arcade Fire, who have spent so much time masquerading as sacred purveyors of life, love, and other hippie mantras.
More galling than the PR campaign behind the release of the album-- a "fake news" blog, ridiculous costumes, Fidget Spinners, Ritalin cereal, a bogus negative review of the upcoming record--is the actual music on display. It would be one thing for Arcade Fire to chastise it's audience by holding up a mirror to the ways in which we are stuck inside a feedback loop of screen-based distractions by actually saying something meaningful, or at the very least, clever. Instead, Everything Now is just as vapid and trite as what it's criticizing. Part of what has made Arcade Fire such a powerful force has been the purity of their vision. Even if you found their grandiose sentiments dopey, their earnestness was never in question. They meant well. They aspired to huge things. They may have come across pretentious and downright silly, but the strength of their convictions were matched by soaring harmonies, layered instrumentation, and Butler's commanding wail.
Everything Now has none of the band's previous purity of vision. There's a song called "Peter Pan" where Butler literally (and rather creepily) intones Be my Wendy/ I'll be your Peter Pan over a half-baked dub beat. "Chemistry" is a horn-fueled failure on every level, an embarrassing attempt at 80's kitsch whose chorus, You and Me/ We Got Chemistry/ Baby You and Me is probably the worst songwriting of the band's career. "Signs of Life" sounds like Saturday Night Fever filtered through LCD Soundsystem, with a throbbing bassline and upbeat tempo. However, lame declarations like Looking for signs of life / Looking for signs every night / But there’s no signs of life indicates that Arcade Fire find no real pleasure in partying the night away. It's all meaningless. Vapid. Finite. Sure, that makes sense, but then what's the point in concocting such a danceable slice of 70s-cribbed disco? Ditto for "Electric Blue", a David Bowie homage which asks Regine Chassagne to reach a falsetto that she just simply can't hit. The results are both pleasurable (the track has a competent synth-pop groove) and aggravating, with Chassagne's alien-like vocals reaching new levels of ear scrapping annoyance. Elsewhere, on the electro-tinged "Creature Comfort", the band attempt to lambaste fame and vanity by applying a narrative concerning a girl who nearly kills herself inside a bathtub. She told me she came so close / Filled up the bathtub and put on our first record / Saying God, make me famous / If you can’t just make it painless. Of course, the first record in question is Funeral, and of course, the patronizing attitude Arcade Fire take towards this young fan (whether the story is true or not is irrelevant) verges on narcissistic obliviousness.
Everything Now does contain a few fleeting glimpses of Arcade Fire's strengths. "Put Your Money On Me" has a rhythmical sense of building momentum, with layered production and an ABBA-esque vocal refrain. "We Don't Deserve Love" is a somber meditation on giving up during our trying times, with a simple fuzzed-out synth and Butler's earnest falsetto giving way to a rather beautiful chorus of overlapping chants. During these moments, the band hint at the less superficial, more honest record that could have been. Ultimately, the most disappointing thing about Everything Now, beyond the limp songwriting, is the condescending attitude it adopts masked as winking satire. Lyrically insipid, conceptually trite, and musically uneven is the order of the day here, and try as they might, Arcade Fire cannot convince us that this is all somehow the point. The soulless cynicism the group seem to be parodying (hence the marketing rollout) is the very thing that ultimately derails their artistic statement. In other words, if you are going to create art scolding us about the dangers of our modern media landscape, then, well, just make it painless.