Review: Arcade Fire, Everything Now

Listen to Arcade Fire’s Everything Now and hear their crowns slide right off their heads
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Over the last decade-plus, Arcade Fire has been a fixture in every debate about who is the biggest band in the world. As a term, it’s pretty loose. Arcade Fire’s inclusion in this debate is effectively mandatory because, quite simply, everything about them is huge. They didn’t write singles, they wrote albums, and their albums were statements. Win Butler, Regine Chassagne and company didn’t play their songs, they offered them—along with themselves. No other 21st-century band sustained the trifecta of originality, ambition and mainstream appeal with quite as much style or substance.

For these reasons and more, Arcade Fire was an era-defining band. If you were old enough to be swept away by the innocence and blind abandon of Funeral 13 years ago, if you've grown and stumbled and pondered along with Arcade Fire ever since, Everything Now feels like a gut punch. It's indulgence, capitulation, a band succumbing, willingly, to the shallowness they previously sought to insulate themselves from. Maybe Arcade Fire were the biggest band in the world—until they tried to be.

Preceded by a bizarre, easily misconstrued marketing campaign, Everything Now is an uneasy combination of glibness and sheen. It’s well produced, to be sure—perhaps overly so. Everything else is underdeveloped. The disco ball that flickered in the corner on Reflektor now dangles from center stage, illuminating an empty, garish dance hall. The deep dive into disco shouldn’t come as a shock given the names attached (Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter, Pulp’s Steve Mackey, among others) or the band’s own flirtations with the genre (the driving rhythms of Funeral, especially the “Crown of Love” coda; “Sprawl II”; Reflektor). But the band’s approach to its new sound, and, especially its songwriting, is unenthusiastic, uninspired, even lazy. It’s a degeneration of the ideals Arcade Fire held, stripped to their elements, ready for spoon-feeding.

At their hearts, Arcade Fire albums have always been about relationships, with technology, the past, institutions, each other. Everything Now is, in some respects, about the emptiness of these relationships. The title track takes this a step further, cataloging the saturation of every inch of our planet, bodies, souls, and minds, and the dependencies that accompany it. It navigates a fine line, heartfelt yet sarcastic, with an epic, gusting breakdown for good measure. “Creature Comforts” explores the consequences of these dependencies in brutal, unpoetic terms: “Some girls hate themselves/Hide under the covers with sleeping pills/Some girls cut themselves/Stand in the mirror and wait for the feedback.” It’s straightforward, visceral, and a strong complement to the track’s pummeling electronics. It’s also a bit juvenile, but since when have we faulted Arcade Fire for that? The difference here is that it’s unnourishing.

Everything Now is also, in a much larger respect, about nothing. It's beyond me who they're trying to please with "Chemistry", a series of half-assed pick-up lines, lumbering clumsily between funk and big beat, with a sing-along chorus so flaccid it’s practically mush. It’s Def Leppard meets the Jackson 5, and it’s truly awful. Win Butler has never been a terrific lyricist; here he’s downright indolent.

The lack of interest in inciting anything other than mindless chanting is evident on several other tracks. Sometimes it’s the rhyme schemes, sometimes it’s the absence of imagination. "Peter Pan", actually a nice personification of the band, manages both. It captures Arcade Fire’s essence in the most boring, literal terms imaginable. Implicitly, Arcade Fire never wanted to grow up; here they stomp around and spell it out with giant flashcards.

It’s ironic that all that an album that rails against information saturation has to offer is mindless escapism. The two-part, three-minute “Infinite(_)Content”, a concept ripe with possibilities, settles for superficial wordplay. “Infinite content/We’re infinitely content/All your money’s already spent,” Butler pants. Part one is a garage thrasher, part two is The Suburbs via Nashville. It’s a shake-up of sorts, but from a thematic standpoint, it’s still an opportunity missed. Even the dazzling, effervescent “Electric Blue”, ostensibly Regine Chassange’s shining moment, is either about a summer fling or a perfunctory tribute to David Bowie. A pretty box with nothing inside.

By the time “Put Your Money on Me” and “We Don't Deserve Love” come around, the well has been poisoned. These Reflektor misfits are both decent Arcade Fire tracks (the latter is actually quite gorgeous), but it’s too little, too late. I’m not even going to get into “Good God Damn”, rest assured it offers “Chemistry” some competition. Everything Now is antithetical to Reflektor in its ambition and scale. And, paradoxically, thin on content.

Perhaps this is just a product of unreasonably high expectations? What’s wrong with an inconsequential offering from a universally beloved act? The problem is that Everything Now doesn’t just feel lightweight, it feels like willful regression. Arcade Fire may have channeled Peter Pan in the past, now it seems they’re channeling Benjamin Button. Whereas previous shifts in sound were organic, the product of natural growth, this one comes off as obligatory and cheap, as if there were nowhere else to go. For the first time in their career, Arcade Fire haven’t made a record; they’ve manufactured one.