Ten years have passed since the Canadian band known as Arcade Fire released its sophomore record, Neon Bible, a great follow-up to a debut as excellent as it was Funeral, musically speaking. It was so deeply different from its predecessor and yet sounded so authentic, like no other musicians but those behind “Neighborhood #2 (Laika)” could have composed it.
Their approach was much more mental, indeed, but never aseptic or cold: the rawer edges of their sound were softened, the explosive maximalism condensed and only evoked in specific moments, like the unforgettable “Keep The Car Running” or “No Cars Go”, in a brilliant variation of fast and slow tempos, of placidity and anxiety.
The result was a less straight-forward record, originally built, beautifully arranged, that patiently captured the listener and enchanted him with dynamic pathos.
Nonetheless, Neon Bible, had an undeniable Achilles’ heel: its lyrics.
The complex spectrum of emotions Win Butler evoked in Funeral was pushed aside in order to make space for a fragile pulpit from whence he enlisted to the listener the horrors of civilizations, in an alternation of distant anger and sloppy fear that peaked in a puerile desire to escape from war, religious violence, the oppressiveness of TV culture and the other dirty cheats and lies of contemporary society, and reach for a place where “no cars can go”.
And although the lyrics weren’t bad enough to spoil the record’s beauty, they indeed felt like a step back from what they were able to achieve previously, and convinced critics that Butler’s pen was able to give its best when writing about what lies inward rather than outward. It took the band six years and two excellent record to prove them wrong.
Arcade Fire revolutionized their sound once again in 2013 with Reflektor. A record that was able to lyrically achieve everything that Neon Bible failed to do. Through 13 tracks, evoking images from history, mythology and his personal life, Butler deeply explored the more alienated aspects of the life in the digital era. What can be considered real? What do love or faith become? Are these new forms of communication restricting our spectrum of reality instead instead of expanding it? Are they creating a new idea of what is normal and what is deviant? Never judging, Win asked all of these questions without giving the listener an easy answers.
This lyrical cure and intimacy, along with the superb production of James Murphy and the band’s will to continually develop its sound in new, interesting ways, are the elements that made Reflektor one of Arcade Fire’s masterpieces and are also what their latest fatigue lacks the most.
Released on the 28th of July via Columbia Records, Everything Now, seems to start where its predecessor left, but as soon as the intro “Everything_Now (Continued)” ends and the title-track stars it is painfully easy to realize that this new record is miles away from Reflektor.
Relying on Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter and Pulp’s Steve Mackie for the production, the band has indeed tried to recreate the same disco atmospheres, but the complexity of a track like “Afterlife”, which perfectly mixed indie rock drums with afrobeat percussions, is crushed under an aggressive pop touch, that no flute in the background nor choir can redeem.
Even the lyrics try to resemble Reflektor‘s themes , focusing once again on technological alienation, but all that Butler seems to care about this time is to ironically lecture the listener and show him how everything in today’s world is fake, from what we desire to what we have. There is no tension, nor empathy, only the empty words of a someone who feels extremely clever in pointing out the obvious.
“Sings Of Life”, the third track, intensifies the early 80’s disco atmosphere with its (ab)use of funk bass, synthesized claps, congas, strings and saxophone, it is pretty predictable until the bridge, the only non (outrageously) disco moment of the song, where the strings go melodic.
Of course even with this song Win has to teach the kids something: the lesson of “Signs Of Life” can be reassumed by the groundbreaking phrase “Love is hard, sex is easy”…Luckily, Butler gives the listener a break in the fourth track “Creature Comfort”, one of the few interesting track on the album. The distorted, fast bass line suddenly colliding with the slow drums, creates a nice contrast that makes it sound like it is glitching sometimes. And, thanks to Régine’s acute chorus during the refrains, the song’s overtone gets even rawer. The lyrics are quite enjoyable too, exploiting young people’s obsession with obtaining fame and fortune in life to the point they’d rather die painlessly than become just someone. But, as Butler points out, there is pain and even if we are not famous “we are not nameless”, and what it is important is find out what we really want, without grappling to some ready-made ideal of happiness.
“Peter Pan”, instead, focuses on the anxiety that comes when you realize that you are growing up, your parents are going to die and, eventually, you are going to die too. The song is indeed a clunky piece of synthetic music, but the lyrics are not that bad, and the use of the fictional character created by J.M. Barrie is less predictable than expected. Verses like “We can walk if you don’t feel like flying/We can live I don’t feel like dying”, are not about going back to childhood or not growing up to avoid responsibilities. They express the desire to stop time and be able to stay with the one we love.
But any feeling of humanity you can have grown up until now, will inevitably be crushed by “Chemistry”, probably the worst song Arcade Fire have ever written in their career. It is an awful jumble of reggae, 80’s hard rock and country, that tells the story of the creepy attempt of a big bad corporation to seduce an innocent young girl, with a hook as catchy as obnoxious. There is no dynamism in the track, it is nothing more than a poorly realized collage of different sounds that make very little sense together.
With “Infinite Content” and its counterpart “Infinite_Content”, one a synth-punk interlude, the other a slow ballad, Butler strikes back again at contemporary society. Playing with the words content (meaning text, data, information but also goods) and content (meaning happiness, pleasure, ecc.), he enlightens the listener once again: in today’s society it is easy to confuse goods and happiness, and many thinks that content (meaning happiness, pleasure, ecc.) is on sale…Brilliant, is it?
Régine’s voice drives the summery “Electric Blue”, a synth-pop love song with a tip of vapid melancholia. Although it is not particularly bad, it gets boring after the very first listening thanks to a dull arrangement that makes it completely anticlimactic.
“Good God Damn” instead seems to carry on the reflection on suicide as an escape from mediocrity started in “Creature Comfort”, trying to explain that everyone has basically a right to exist, famous or not. It is pretty touching, and the psychedelic atmosphere created by the “gilmourish” guitar riff, the bass and the strings, in spite of being the umpteenth vintage touch, works quite well with the lyrics.
And, from a production point of view, “Put Your Money On Me” is well builded too. The strings and the voices merge quite nicely, the background is constantly set in motion by piano and synth fills. Luckily it doesn’t tediously rely on ossessive 80’s nostalgia that much. But again, the arrangement is really too steady and flattens every sound trough its deadening repetitiveness, making the whole thing sound like a missed opportunity.
“We Don’t Deserve Love”, the penultime track, also becomes pretty boring during its six and half minutes run, but the atonal sci-fi synth that runs throughout the whole song creates an interest chemistry with the guitar and the feeble piano. The passage from the psychedelic strophe to the tender hook singed by Régine also flows pretty smoothly. The lyrics are fairly good too and Butler shows another glimpse of humanity while he tells a love story using biblical figures and tries to understand if there is a salvation from the horrors he portrayed up to now.
The record then closes on “Everything Now (Continued)”, a reprise of the very first track “Everything_Now (Continued)”, that allows the listener to play the record in a continuous loop. It is an interesting way to represent the circular nature of the dystopian reality depicted in the album and develop its concept to the very end. But is obviously not enough to redeem the disaster this whole record is.
It is hard to believe that the very same musicians behind four excellent albums such as Funeral, Neon Bible, The Suburbs and Reflektor, could give birth to something bad as this. But in fact: Arcade Fire undeniably sacrificed their unceasing will to explore and develop their sound to cheap pop refrains, lazy arrangements and prosaic lyrics. Of course, it is not necessarily wrong to search for a more accessible sound, and there are many ways to do so without annihilating complexity while doing it. Accessibility is just a different rule an artist may choose or not choose to play with, and many musicians have been able to take advantage of it and produce superb works.
Tame Impala’s Currents, for example, is surely easier to approach than Innerspeaker or Lonerism, relying less on psychedelic guitars then its predecessors and focusing primarily on synths and basses. But this did not kill the band’s creativity, it actually enhanced it.
Arcade Fire instead laze in this bleak parody of the early 80’s, that sounds like a bad joke they found extremely funny although no one, except them, is laughing. And their inexplicable satisfactions is worse than the record itself, meaning that Everything Now could not be an isolated faux pas but the new paradigm for Arcade Fire’s music to come.
Full listen on Spotify below: