By Tony Inglis
Until the release of their new album Everything Now, Arcade Fire had released four ecstatically wonderful albums: the emotive sweep of debut Funeral, the darkly powerful and severely underrated Neon Bible, the rebellious ode to the kids The Suburbs, and the moonlit disco of Reflektor.
Before a note of Everything Now was released to the world, the moment posed something of a crossroads for this now massively popular band of misfits. Would it fit into their canon as another near perfect record, constantly debated over where it slots into their all time best by fans? Or would they slip over their own growing egos and expectation?
For me, anything other than the former would be deeply unthinkable. One of my greatest musical memories involves two Arcade Fire gigs about eight months apart. The first, at Glasgow’s Barrowlands, all decked out in fancy dress, the atmosphere was electric; Reflektor was so new the wax had barely hardened on my vinyl. Win Butler and co took to the stage and launched into that record’s ‘Normal Person’. Everyone was singing along to essentially an album track. When they played perhaps their most well known hit, ‘Wake Up’, second in the setlist, the Gallowgate venue exploded and it didn’t let up. Months later, I was in the crowd as Arcade Fire triumphantly headlined Primavera Sound festival in Barcelona. It just about surpassed that more intimate gig in Glasgow. That was 2014.
Fast forward to 2017, and Arcade Fire once again headlined Primavera. But something was different. The party had become tired, the band seemed to lack that enthusiasm. The old songs were still great, but the feeling had vanished.
Let’s get the anger out of the way quickly, so we can get to the weary disappointment. Everything Now is not apocalyptically shit. It is not the cataclysmic disaster that the shrieking crescendo of some early reviews would have had us believe. But this set of songs, regardless of its coherent narrative and concept – highlighting the modern world’s attachment to brand and devouring of commerciality, our wish to have everything, now – are such a disappointment, not even coming close to the standards previously set by this rightly adored band.
We should have seen it coming. The Abba-borrowing twinkly piano keys of the title track and the pleasant grooves of early singles ‘Signs of Life’ and ‘Electric Blue’ are about the best this record has to offer. They were accepted prior to full release with a shrug and a determination that the best was yet to come. Unfortunately, other than the droney ballad of a finale ‘We Don’t Deserve Love’, we are presented with ‘Peter Pan’ and ‘Chemistry’ two totally thankless and without merit tunes that easily rank as the laziest song-writing in Arcade Fire’s history.
These are followed by the mercifully short twin centrepieces of ‘Infinite Content’ and ‘Infinite_Content’ – one punky, one country – that merely add weight to the turgid and bloated middle section. Sure, this keeps nicely to the whole ‘technology and consumerism is bad, slow your life down’ theme, but the songs themselves are devoid of thought or ideas. On ‘Signs of Life’, they go full on Talking Heads cover band, an influence they’ve worn on their sleeves since The Suburbs, but have never crossed over, as in this case, into parody. Some of the lyrics are bewilderingly jarring too. When you hear Butler sing about a girl attempting suicide while listening to their first record, sure, at worst it’s offensive, but it’s just as horrible because of how surprising it is to hear a vocalist, normally so honest and meticulous in his lyrics, be so violent and careless.
These songs are lazy and guileless. The power, emotion and earnestness that fills nearly every past Arcade Fire song is gone. Win Butler sounds like he can’t be bothered, and his brother Will and Richard Reed Parry, backing him up, sound equally apathetic. Envisioning Will bopping about the stage like a man possessed, as he usually is, while playing this music is impossible. ‘Keep the Car Running’, ‘Rebellion’, ‘Here Come the Night Time’ – these songs were bursting with so much feeling it could be repeatedly overwhelming. On Everything Now, there is no feeling at all, and that’s a criticism I never thought I would aim at this band.
Arcade Fire have become the masters of the protracted roll out, and this album cycle has been no different, including a fake review, a corporate Twitter account and endlessly snarky press releases and comments. That’s fine, it’s a big joke. The problem is, this album seems to be too. Hopefully, it is nothing more than an aberration.