I wasn’t going to write anything about Arcade Fire’s Everything Now, and with good reason: with such an omnipresent marketing (and faux-marketing) campaign, Arcade Fire has stormed the barricades of conventional music releases with their latest record, leaving nary a stone unturned. Not merely content with appealing to their hardcore indie fan base, their brilliant social media schemes, memes and always-earnest/leave-it-all-on-the-stage shows have attracted a wider net of mainstream audiences. By skewering the absurdity of consumerist, capitalist, narcissistic America where it lives and breathes – the internet – AF is now in the same arena as big corporations shilling their wares… and by expertly borrowing the language and graphics long used by ad hacks, AF (under the guise of its fake parent company The Everything Now Corporation) seems to be beating them at their own game.
But all of this has been said, more or less, in recent reviews of the band’s exploits and excellent new album “Everything Now.” So rather than regurgitate the obvious (with the exception of the paragraph above) I’ve been diving into the album alone, bobbing my head to the beats, enjoying the treasure hunt of inspired not-so-hidden musical treats the band has left for its fans throughout the record in the form of derivative rhythms, chimes, vocal theatrics, lyrical nods to AF’s own musical heroes. As I’ve listened, I’ve been revisiting my own journey with AF, which began after “The Suburbs,” and which has taken me to Coachella, Haiti, Montreal, New Orleans, and other, more spiritual and introspective aural and aortic landscapes.
Then M. called, wondering when I’d write about it. I explained my reasons for wanting to let this one pass. “I’m too close to it,” I said. “I couldn’t be objective if I tried.”
But that’s the point, he insisted. If you’re lucky as a music fan, your favorite band will put out five, six albums in your lifetime. And when it happens, it’s an event. That’s why you need to write something.
As I mulled this over, he added, with typical reverse-psychology intentions, But you can do what you want.
And here we are.
What sent me over the edge? All the negative “reviews” of this latest AF project. When my kids’ friends tell me that they love the album but ask, “Why did Pitchfork only give it a 5.6?” and wonder if there’s something wrong with them because they like it, it makes me think that the music zine wunderkinds are just a bit too full of themselves. As a culture, we’ve historically given too much power to critics, as though they know more than we do. The deal with reviewing art is: you can only like what you like based on what you’ve liked in the past and the sounds/beats/lyrics that you are (literally) genetically predisposed to like. And even if an influential magazine claims that Beyonce’s latest album is the aural equivalent of the second coming of Christ, I can’t guarantee I’ll even check it out. I know she’s a big deal, I like what she stands for, etc., but it’s her sister Solange who makes music that speaks directly to me.
So reading the Pitchfork review, with a subheadline that declares “The Montreal band’s fifth album finds them in musical and lyrical stasis. The pale, joyless songs don’t transcend their social critique – they succumb to it,” I guess I had to laugh at the arrogance of rock critics who consider themselves and their opinions to be the nexus of good taste.
But, as the poet Mary Oliver says in her poem Wild Geese, “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” And I love Arcade Fire, with its supposed fifth-album warts, disco beats and all. I couldn’t write an objective review if I tried. I’m in too deep, as M. might say. So, with that disclaimer, here are my thoughts on Everything Now:
Arcade Fire knows what they’re doing. They’re no longer striving to be the cool kids who mask their naivete with denim jackets and Doc Martens (although their current tour get-ups are plenty cool with exactly those items). They no longer need to shout their lyrics to be heard; people are listening. In this go-round, AF presents a post-Reflektor account of what happens when our society ignores its reflection in the mirror and snaps a selfie instead. Lyrics about our consumer-driven lives are tempered by bouts of all-out dance music. I mean, how best to remedy the fucked-up reality of our 1984/Big Brother political landscape than with Studio 54-style disco? And then I ask you, is it any wonder that LCD Soundsystem (with frontman James Murphy, who produced tracks on Reflektor) is back from the dead?
I love the intro/outro/transitional elements of Everything Now, using sirens and cash register beeps and windchimes. I also love the way that songs bleed into each other (like old vinyl or cassettes, in the days before playlists and tracks) and rhythms and lyrics are repeated throughout the album for different effects. The best example of this are the twin tracks “Infinite Content” and “Infinite_Content.” Both songs share the lyrics
The first song (no underscore) could be the pop-punk theme song of a Dan Schneider/Nickelodeon show (cue the montage of kids dancing in hallways and pulling pranks, or cutting to a bubble gum or breakfast cereal commercial). Then the frenzy gives way to a lush alt-country ballad that recalls both AF’s “Wasted Hours” and any Neil Young love song. The “gimme gimme/I want it NOW” feeling of “Infinite Content” gleans new meaning with its side-by-side juxtaposition with the sorrowful emotional delivery of the lyrics in “Infinite_Content,” in which the narrator may have sold his soul (and last dollar) for something that ultimately didn’t change his life. Left holding the pieces of a life unchanged, the line “we’re infinitely content” feels more like magical thinking, a falsely positive affirmation in the face of bleak reality.
I love the dark and fuzzy “Creature Comfort,” which Salon.com claimed as evidence that AF is “thumbing its nose” at us. But (as you can imagine), I don’t agree. This song, which recalls the driving electronic distortion of “Ghost Rider” by Suicide, balances its dark lyrics (about the inner critic and painful humanity) and deep bass line with a shimmering synth melody and an overlay of Regine’s lovely fairy-sprite voice. For me, the song is about grappling with the desire for instant gratification in body image, sex, “likes” and clicks online, etc. And when none of those things work, there’s always suicide as a “painless” antidote to living. But then there’s the bridge: It’s not painless/she was a friend of mine… Between the lines, the message is, for better or worse, there is no pain-free alternative to life and humanity. The best we can do is live our truth. The most beautiful part of the song, lost on the radio edit, is the faint windchime melody at the end in the tune of “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels).” The connection is made between this sense of innocence lost and the idea that if the snow buries my neighborhood/then I’ll dig a tunnel/from my window to yours. There is another way out, not past the pain but through it.
In Pitchfork, the songs “Peter Pan” and “Chemistry” were passed off as throw-away tracks, but I hear the Haitian rara beat and the messy horns and it transports me to the wild, tangled streets of Port-au-Prince and New Orleans. There is voodoo in the mix, and I can see a band of kids on Royal Street with hand-me-down brass, clapping their hands and stomping as the kid blowing the tuba sways in the sticky late evening breeze. The words don’t matter here. This is Win Butler standing in a circle of musicians, clanging a drumstick on a bottle of Prestige and spouting whatever lyrics come to mind, everything to keep the beat and jam going. It’s an electronic reggae mash-up dance party with electric guitars a NoLa second line.
“Good God Damn” revisits the girl facing suicide in “Creature Comforts,” wondering “Maybe there’s a good God… damn…” over and over, as though working out whether or not suicide is the answer. “Put Your Money On Me” has been hailed as a second coming of Abba, but you can also hear an undercurrent of Donna Summer’s disco manifesto “I Feel Love” in the beginning and on the fringes.
I could go on and on about the title track and “Electric Blue” (a true-to-the-Tom-Tom-Club cocaine hangover sparkler), but those songs can speak for themselves. Instead, let’s talk about the final songs, which bring the finger pointing of the early tracks to a screeching halt. On “We Don’t Deserve Love,” we’re reminded why we have bought into the consumerism culture in the first place: we think we must do/think/act/look like the most popular celebrities and buy what they do in order to feel worthy, rather than focus on our inner lives. And then the sleepy, strings-laden “Everything Now (continued),” with its lyrical echoes from the rest of the album, brings us back around to where we began (if you listen to it on a loop, it transitions perfectly into “Everything_Now (continued)”).
Was it all a just a dream – the consumerism, the rush to be seen and known, our little lives on earth?
More importantly, can we make it back again?
To recap: yes, I love Everything Now. And even if you don’t, it’s worth a second listen. Like the ambitious albums of the Beatles, I think the layers of this album will only be revealed over a lifetime of coming back to it. Don’t rush it. There’s infinite content, and you’ve got the time.
An extra treat: ^ this video of Win Butler describing his songwriting process.
Photo of Arcade Fire at Voodoo Fest, New Orleans, October 30, 2016 by M.