Everything We Dislike About Everything Now

One year ago this week, Arcade Fire released their fifth album Everything Now. Within a few days of its release it was already the most divisive of the band’s decade-plus career. A year on, it feels like a good point at which to take stock and reassess. Is Everything Now really a bad record?

Everything Now has a reputation that’s beyond bordering on infamy. It’s the bad egg of Arcade Fire’s otherwise prestigious canon. Reception was extremely mixed upon its release with the majority of reviews labelling it their worst album to date, the “first missfire record of their career.” Pitchfork dug its claws in with a review that read more damning than the tepid 5.6 rating they slapped on it. It was official: the publication that helped build them up to near-stratospheric levels was now tearing them back down.

Criticism was levelled particularly at the band’s tongue-in-cheek promotional campaign; fake Facebook posts and mock reviews of a Premature Evaluation of the album were just some of the tactics deployed to circulate the album, a trajectory that soon wore thin with their intended audience. These tactics and gimmicks continued well into the months following the album’s release, almost like a promise to themselves to perpetuate the joke even after everyone had grown tired of the flimsy punch-line.

Part of the frustration lie in the fact that Arcade Fire didn’t seem to be aware of the fact that we are socially-aware (at least on some level) of all the things inherently wrong with our Instagram-led lives. What was probably meant as a gentle nudge came across as lectured spoon-feeding. If Arcade Fire were a joke band, we could’ve perhaps accepted their intentions more graciously. But they’re not, and we didn’t.

The title track’s release on 1st June 2017 signalled not only a new month but a shift in sound towards the poppier direction that many listeners grew wary of on their previous album. Initial reaction was positive (if divisive) but within a week or two it felt as though the wind had been taken out of the sails of the band’s latest voyage.

By the time Creature Comfort and the middling Signs Of Life came around a fortnight later, it seemed like most people had already made up their minds about Everything Now without having heard it. Where was the Serious Rock Band Statement to counter that annoyingly catchy disco lead single? The previews alone were enough to confirm that this was a dud. What a shame. Better luck next time, eh?

I myself fell prey to that months-long muted response in June and July of last year and tried to put an impending disaster to the back of my mind. In the end, I eagerly gobbled up a leak of the album a week before its release (even though I had already pre-ordered a physical copy) and felt numb by the time the final track had played.

For the first time listening to an Arcade Fire album, I wasn’t really sure what to think. I’d listened carefully over the previous forty-seven minutes and kept waiting for the EUREKA moment.

It didn’t come.

Like everyone else, I had to have everything now (lol) and hear it the second it became available. And like everyone else, I had to have an instantaneous reaction that was either all or nothing. I had to let strangers online know my thoughts about it to feel like I was contributing to part of a wider conversation on what it means for a band to fall from grace so dramatically. For all intents and purposes, this is how we measure our reactions now; by the consensus of the majority.

(A long-held theory I have goes something like this: Animal Collective’s career was killed off in one fell swoop by Pitchfork not assigning Centipede Hz a BNM tag. Whether the album deserved it is not the point.)

From that first listen, I craved the same pleasant feelings I had when I heard Reflektor and The Suburbs and Neon Bible for the first time. With Funeral, no one had any expectations because there was nothing to compare it to. Whilst it’s true that the majority of people who got into Funeral did so via its astounding critical reception and word of mouth, the world’s enduring love for that album came with time and experience. It accrued meaning and was woven into people’s lives as they found moments where its ten songs felt applicable, mirroring them at their most human. (There’s probably no other independently-released rock album this century that has achieved the same level of communal status like Funeral has. Its reach is broad and relatable, and I’ll leave it there, as a lot more has been written about it and better.)

Why couldn’t we do that with Everything Now?

Rarely do we want our favourite bands to take risks and change their sound. Yet change is necessary in order for a band to move forward. To stay vital. To not stagnate. The tricky thing is, inspiration has to be there in order to retain vitality. They either go full throttle and do a Radiohead by exploring an altogether different area of music entirely, or they make subtle changes to their sonic palette across many releases à la The National or Beach House, spinning genuine, seemingly-endless new ideas out of one highly-developed aesthetic. Both feats are equally impressive yet seldom receive the same recognition; if you’re not reinventing the wheel, you’re apparently stagnating. The problem with Everything Now is that it lies somewhere in-between those two changes. It doesn’t push one away in favour of the other, and it suffers from it as a result.

If you’re a long-time Arcade Fire fan, ask yourself this: where did you want them to go after Reflektor? If your answer sounds something like the oft-cited “less dance-y and with more guitars like on Funeral,” then you should probably attempt to change your way of thinking.

It would be disingenuous at this stage to not at least acknowledge that part of the frustration with Everything Now comes from the fact that it actually isn’t a great record. Despite my inability to outright bash it as many others have, I’m willing to admit that it’s their weakest album. Parts of it feel rushed; ill-conceived; not thought through; counter-intuitive to the ways that their previous albums feel meticulously laboured over in the way that real albums should be.

Even the album’s strongest songs (Put Your Money On Me, Electric Blue, Creature Comfort) wind up feeling muddled; built up with great melodies and progressions yet crippled by an inability to ‘bring it home’ in the final act. They peter out like dying embers, faint flickers of the raging inferno that imbued their early works so effortlessly.

Yet it’s also an immediately listenable album. It has a flow, even through its troubling middle section (which I frequently want to skip). As a consequence, Everything Now can easily be divided into thirds: a weak middle section bookended by a much stronger beginning and end. Even then, the stronger songs occasionally feel like they’re posited to prop up the weaker ones in order to spread the album out evenly. The fact that it’s done in a way that actually flows is testament to Arcade Fire’s skills as architects of their own making: the album as art form still feels like a treasure worth preserving to them, even if streaming has killed off the average listener’s ability to perceive it as such.

The best example might be in how the orchestral outro of the title track finishes the album at a clip, intentionally looping back seamlessly to the beginning. If this Möbius strip suggests anything, it’s that we’re perhaps stuck on the “infinite content” train whether we like it or not.

It’s a device Arcade Fire have adopted before.

The outro to The Suburbs revives the main melody of the title track by way of an orchestral suite that offers beautifully-rendered closure to an era-defining album. Moreover, Here Comes The Night Time II brilliantly opens up Reflektor’s foreboding second half, its lyrics taking on a much more philosophical iteration in place of the original’s revved-up Haitian-inspired hootenanny.

Not only do these alternative takes suggest a deep understanding of the source material, they add weight and cogency to the idea that their albums should be digested as individual statements.

Arcade Fire have always dealt in large and weighty sociopolitical issues, but the marrying of dramatic music with impassioned vocals (crucially male and female in harmony) is what gives it potency. They do not know how to do small. Introvert is not in their collective nature. Each of their albums have revolved around a particular theme — some of which are notably more urgent than others — but they all lend themselves to the overarching experiences that infilterate our lives: love, loss, death, home, nostalgia, happiness, fear.

The Suburbs is my personal favourite Arcade Fire album. I find its main theme of childhood suburban bliss giving way to subsequent adult alienation to be the most affecting of their career. It is endlessly and universally relatable because it tugs at the heart strings of what makes us human via the carefree naivety of our youth. It coheres both lyrically and musically — bound by nostalgia — representing an apex in the band’s career where it was no longer possible to ignore their musical ambitions and confidence.

Thematically, it shares a lot in common with Funeral and it’s this picking up of threads across albums that strengthens the band’s overall resolve. Their fixation on the past is shot through with uncertain questions of what it means about where we’re headed. The past often dictates the future. This tug of war creates a tension in their music that has been sustained over many years and it’s why their albums hold up very well (and will do so for years to come).

Its sense of nostalgia also mirrors brilliantly over time. In the eight years since its release, one of the main reasons I return to The Suburbs is to recount those experiences of the 2010 summer that I first heard it — who I was friends with, who I fell out with, who I had a crush on, where I was living, where I was working. At last count, it’s my most played album of the decade and has remained a constant throughout (thanks Last.fm). For a band to offer variations on such universal themes across different albums over many years is not to be scoffed at. Indeed, I believe this is what Arcade Fire should be most commended for.

Yet much of what made Arcade Fire a visceral band for the times is absent throughout Everything Now on a studio/production level. For a band that evokes the feels more than most, this accounts for our instant reactions to its shortcomings: it didn’t take our collective breath away and we noticed that before we gave it chance to settle. Take the first minute of No Cars Go from Neon Bible. It builds to a climax before the first vocals are even sputtered. It’s an exhausting, fifth-gear tour-de-force from the off, showcasing what some have claimed those first two landmark albums brought out in uninitiated listeners: musical fervor as quasi-religious experience.

This experience was rendered, over time, in only one setting: live performance.

Perhaps more than any other band this century (so far), Arcade Fire represent the electric, spine-tingling power of community in a live setting, playing out in a fractured and alienated digital world. Everything Now’s subsequent world tour has garnered the band glowing reviews, many of which acknowledge how the disappointment of their fifth album is cast in a new light when performed on stage. Live, they remain unimpeached, and performing for an audience is easily the most consistent aspect of their repertoire. The reason Arcade Fire will always perform to sell-out crowds until the day they call it quits is because their reputation precedes them. Even if you don’t listen to them, you’ve heard about how good they are live.

As someone who is on their eighth Arcade Fire concert and counting, I can vouch that communal experience remains intact, if slightly diminished. The shows of 2018 feel more polished than those 2007 shows. This is down to the fact that Arcade Fire now operate — quite literally and figuratively — on a much larger stage, increases in budget to showcase a — quite frankly, phenomenal — light show (as in the above photo), and their signing to a major label prior to Everything Now’s release. They are no longer a small word-of-mouth band, and these factors only reinforce a critic’s claims of the band selling out or losing their edge.

Win Butler sung of staring at our screens on Reflektor’s title track as a way to underline our social alienation. These barriers come down at their live shows. (Many a sweaty stranger has hugged me in communal rejoicing.) If anything, Arcade Fire are tighter and more professional as a live band now than they ever have been. Even if their music has lost the spark and everything from here on is just a (pale) reflection of what came before, the live shows will endure.

Win Butler and Régine Chassagne are no longer the same people they were when they released Funeral. Neither are Will Butler, Richard Reed Parry, Tim Kingsbury, Jeremy Gara or Sarah Neufeld.

Neither are you or I.

Everything Now is different, sometimes underwhelming for sure, and all eyes will be on their next album, just as they have been since Funeral. (Imagine that kind of pressure!)

After a year, respecting it for what it is rather than what it is not should be key to understanding and appreciating transitional shifts, not only in Arcade Fire’ music, but that of any truly great band.