There’s always been a sense of something bigger going on behind Arcade Fire. The Canadian alternative rock collective has felt more like a musical movement than a traditional band. They’re not about singles or torch-bearers of a particular music trend, they write sweeping epics behind bombastic-sounding folk rock, and they play instruments that require a crank. Even with the scale of their sound and presence, the band’s themes are very grounded: loss of loved ones, religion, suburbia, consumption, and mass media. No matter what their line-up is or whatever style they’ve taken on, Arcade Fire has always had something to say. But is it worrying to hear that Arcade Fire’s latest message adds up to “old man yells at cloud”?
Everything Now is the fifth album for Win Butler and co. and comes four years after the band’s radical sonic shift, Reflektor. While that album took people by surprise by thicker electronic sound and hints of dance grooves (courtesy of co-producer/LCD Soundsystem James Murphy), Everything Now goes full-on modern disco with the likes of Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter, Portishead’s Geoff Barrow and Steve Mackey of Pulp sharing production duties. The album is flooded with prominent synthesizers, disco drums, and funky bass lines like it’s from Duran Duran in the mid-80s peak.
At the start, Everything Now sounds like Arcade Fire has hit a grand revelation with the glorious title track and the two-stepping groove of “Signs of Life.” But then the band decides they want to be Movement-era New Order with off-kilter club tracks “Creature Comfort” and “Peter Pan,” followed by the baffling plopping beat of “Chemistry.” The rest of the album features various song styles on display, with each one throwing the listener off. Aside from the exciting guitar rock of “Infinite Content” or the easy-riding ballad “Electric Blue,” the album feels unfocused and scattershot. Whatever narrative or statement the band tries to make is shoved behind the band’s current musical tastes that haven’t been properly fleshed out.
Arcade Fire’s lyrics have often been seen as a mouthpiece for the modern American youth at a distance from modern times. But Arcade Fire must be at a very long distance to be late to the topics they want to talk about. “Creature Comfort,” for instance, covers suicide and the addiction to social media attention (“Stand in the mirror and wait for feedback”). While its lyrics are blunt (“Some girls hate themselves/Hide under the covers with sleeping pills”), it feels like nothing new is being brought to the table and Arcade Fire don’t seem to have a solution or greater understanding of the situation. There are other moments where songs are corny, borderline embarrassing in fact.
“Chemistry” is an awkward love song where Win tries to put the moves on a girl by doing a creepy David Byrne impression (“Close your eyes, it’s me you’re gonna see/There ain’t no way to fake it”), while “Peter Pan” also tries romance using the equally corny sentiment of being kids that live forever (“We can walk if we don’t feel like flying/We can live, I don’t feel like dying”). But the band’s observant eye still serves them well on the title track’s criticism of over stimulation (“Every inch of space in your head/Is filled up with the things that you read/I guess you’ve got everything now”), if only the band expanded on that instead of diverting.
Everything Now is perhaps the first Arcade Fire album that doesn’t feel important to the band or their fans. Mostly disposable and practically obligatory, the album shows Arcade Fire confused as to what they want to do next so they use the ideas from Reflektor as a safety blanket. It’s sounds fine, even with its odd sonic detours, but it feels like Arcade Fire have lost a sense of passion. Arcade Fire can’t be higher than the world around them but needs to be in the moment next time around.