Arcade Fire Everything Now

[Sonovox/Columbia; 2017]

Styles: indie rock, dance-rock
Others: Occupy Wall Street, www.tumblr.com, Abba

The despair of Everything Now is compelling, because it’s familiar. It’s the same despair that we feel every time we clock in for work or check our phones — it’s the despair of knowing on some level, perhaps subconsciously, that we’re somehow out of touch with what it means to be alive, to be happy, to be free. We live largely confined lives, spending our waking hours participating in culture, trying to make ends meet, and, to paraphrase Kanye West, checking Instagram comments to crowdsource our self-esteem. In Everything Now, Arcade Fire insult our intelligence by assuming that we don’t already feel on some level that there’s something wrong with our society and further demean us by offering an album so thoroughly decadent and self-contradictory that any message it might have had to begin with is lost by the wayside. It’s the responsibility of an artist not only to say something that’s real, but also to render it in a way that’s meaningful. Everything Now abdicates this responsibility at every level and hides behind shades of irony and meta-criticism, which says something powerful about both the band’s integrity as artists and, more importantly, their confidence in their own work.

The songs of Everything Now are far less adventurous and reflective than those of the band’s last album, Reflektor, which, although on the long side, contained some really excellent work, from its star-studded title track to the beautifully melancholy “Afterlife.” Reflektor often reached beyond the genres of dance and rock in interesting ways, both in its lyrics and its music. Dance can be a difficult genre to work within, usually resulting in highly rigid songs that adhere to one strict beat and bass line throughout. Arcade Fire do not diverge much from this on Everything Now; they offer songs that affirm the status quo rather than reject it, while the album’s wistfulness almost always eclipses its more interesting moments. “We Don’t Deserve Love” is especially elegant, featuring unique chord changes and poignant orchestration, but problems can be found in its maudlin lyrics, and, more specifically, the question it advances about whether its protagonists are a priori undeserving of love, whereby it sinks to a level of vitriolic woefulness that makes The Cure seem like Coldplay.

Elsewhere, “Infinite Content” and “Everything Now” (and their unnecessary alternate versions) are tepid tirades against consumerism that illuminate nothing about this world outside of proving empirically that overexposure does, indeed, sap our creativity and our ability to be productively self-critical. There are few signs of life on “Signs of Life,” a song that trades in the tight drum/bass grooves, formidable string-work, and electrifying, precise guitar crashes of “We Exist” for worn-out horns and lazily-conceived violin lines. Lyrically, the band seems to have no faith in the nightlife whose music obviously drives this album. But there are plenty of signs of life in this world, and it’s depressing that Win Butler doesn’t engage with them. If he had a bad time at the club, it’s not because of “those cool kids stuck in the past” who have “no signs of life” — it’s because he has a bad attitude. In contrast, “Creature Comfort” is catchy, smart dance-rock — one of the band’s finest anthems and definitely the strongest song on this album. Butler’s detached frontman vibe is spot on here, building off his work on tracks like “Normal Person.” Its killer synth ostinato refracts the brightest sparks from some of their earlier albums, and its balanced tendency toward lyrical despondency makes it the indie rock counterpart to something like Future’s “Mask Off,” a song of great sincerity that brandishes its flute convincingly, unlike the flute on “Everything Now,” which by comparison sounds a Garageband patch.

While “Creature Comfort” contains one of the album’s only particular and affecting human moments (“It’s not painless/ She was a friend of mine, a friend of mine/ And we’re not nameless”), the rest of the album sees Arcade Fire moving beyond particularity, no longer targeting suburban life, Greek myths, or alienated youth. Now, they only see themselves, and they work in a kind of hazy decision paralysis, where they can no longer commit to a single idea, marketing scheme, style, or opinion about their own music. The only thing Arcade Fire’s Everything Now is about is Arcade Fire, which is its most pernicious and pathetic quality. Arcade Fire are no longer Orpheus and Eurydice, lovers doomed to tragedy; now they are Narcissus, the Greek hunter who lost the will to live after staring at his own reflection in a pond for too long. They ask their listeners to participate in this cynicism as they grasp so falsely at explanations for why “we” are like this. They look not at history, at capitalism, at the failures of the Left, at musical forms, at the idea of art. They don’t look forward, toward ideas that could provide relief for the symptoms described in the album. They don’t push music forward, and they don’t attempt to give hope to listeners in pain. No, this is just classic rage, the mask of sadness.

Throughout the event that is Everything Now, this rage has sublimated in numerous interesting ways. The band’s pre-emptive meta-review of their own record on “Stereoyum” wasn’t an attack on music journalism, nor was it an attempt at self-critique — it was a defense mechanism to lessen the sting of the inevitable critical backlash against this album. In a recent, candid interview with Zane Lowe, Butler mentioned that he can basically write on a napkin the kind of response that each album will get, and that he feels that people will often be wrong about Arcade Fire’s work, especially when they don’t understand what the band is trying to do. Butler has made similar comments on his Twitter about the album’s supposed depth (“Thank you so much to everyone who is really listening to our record. Real albums reveal themselves over time. This one is no different.”). At this moment, I see no hidden meaning behind the laptop reggae and butt-rock interludes of “Chemistry,” a song that has been rightly lambasted across the board. Butler’s response is that the song plays well in New Orleans and will probably play well in Mexico; it’s just that Brooklynites may not understand it. He wants to stand above the album’s listeners in order to administer their experience with it, effectively trading in his status as an artist for that of a salesman. Great art should speak for itself, even if its language needs to be translated by critical theory.

Arcade Fire’s claim about Everything Now is that its irony is so sophisticated that it’s simply lost on most critics and listeners. What Arcade Fire doesn’t understand about irony, however, is that it requires enough critical distance between the subject and its action that people can tell the difference. Irony only works when it’s understood that what is being said is not necessarily what is meant. For this album, Arcade Fire invented Everything Now Corp., a fake umbrella corporation responsible for the band’s advertising campaign and the album’s rollout, both of which have been well-documented elsewhere. They’re selling $100 fidget spinners, telling people how to dress for their shows, “accidentally” leaking fake tour riders, and writing fake reviews of their own album (i.e., doing the things that they think are bad). The issue is, though, that when one does something ironically, they’re still doing it. Who one is in the world, especially as an artist, is what they do, not what they say they’re doing. Arcade Fire want us to believe that they’re perpetuating some sort of cryptic, postmodern Gesamtkunstwerk that can’t possibly be understood by their detractors. Yet, we can only judge what we see. Even if the album is an attempt at a confession, which Butler suggested in his interview with Lowe, it’s an opaque one that doesn’t seem interested in repentance or overcoming, only complaining. Arcade Fire don’t want to believe that they are doing these things, that they’re participating in this system. They want to believe, like their fans, that they’re pursuing these activities only ironically. And yet the system prevails — ideology is funny in that way. Everything Now is, in many ways, the opposite of what great indie rock is purported to be, beckoning us away from consciousness, not toward it. There used to be spirit in music, a force that desperately wanted to grasp something real about the times we live in and change them. All but faded, its absence haunts everything now.

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