Monday, July 31, 2017

album review: 'everything now' by arcade fire

Okay, in the modern internet age, especially on YouTube, it's not exactly a good look for critics to appear smug or condescending towards an audience. We rely on you guys, and I would lying if I didn't say I was grateful every single day for the growth of this community, be it through you guys who watch everything to those who support me on Patreon. You're helping enable something for me that's really exciting, and I'm looking forward to seeing where this channel could go.

That said, when I started seeing the reviews for Arcade Fire's newest record, with the sort of mixed critical reception the band has never really received, especially for the lyrics and songwriting, there was a tremendous sense of vindication that rushed through me - I'm not going to say that 'I told you so', but I am going to claim at least some credit for calling it. Because I was hard on Reflektor, partially for its sloppily realized song structures and lack of balance between its vocalists, but most of all for the undercooked themes surrounding an artist's relationship with fame and the smug, self-obsessed writing trying to explore and deconstruct it - and for a critic just starting out, that's the sort of controversial opinion that can cripple an upstart channel - even if eventually I wound up putting 'Joan Of Arc' on my list of my favourite songs of 2013! And while I will admit to never being a huge Arcade Fire fan, their first three records and especially The Suburbs do hold a special place for me in harnessing real wit and insight to temper the earnestness, most of which curdled in an off-putting way on Reflektor that reflected a band that has more ambition than the control or self-awareness to execute it well.

And while some of this critical backlash has been long-in-coming - for some critics thirsty for cred the knives have been out for Arcade Fire's pompous pretentiousness for some time - the reviews of Everything Now showed not just those critics getting an easy target, but also an audience who had been willing to excuse so much from this band finally hitting their breaking point - in many places seemingly for lyrical patterns that continued from Reflektor. So you can bet I wanted to get in on this, so how is Everything Now?

Here's the thing: there's a part of me that wants to respect Arcade Fire's Everything Now, if only for its construction, even though I will be joining the tide of people who can't in conscience call this good. Hell, I'd even give it points for having more restraint and tightness than Reflektor - there's no overloaded soundscapes or ambient pieces that try everyone's patience, this is certainly a more accessible record. But I have to hand it to Arcade Fire, it takes a bizarre sense of bravado to flagellate commercialism and the information age and the overloaded cycle of consumption all the while locking themselves into it with ruthless efficiency. It's just a shame that once Arcade Fire does this - and of course tries to comment on it - that they don't take those extra steps to make this record say more a selectively self-aware, nihilistic cynicism that for Arcade Fire's earnestness might be an even worse fit than navel-gazing paranoia.

But of course I'm getting ahead of myself, so let's start off with the instrumentation and production, and if you're expecting Arcade Fire to reclaim the dramatic swell and bombast of previous albums after the retro-disco and new wave callbacks of Reflektor... well, you could make the argument they tried to split the difference with the frequent interjections of more dramatic strings sections and horns and pedal steel of all things, but at the end of the day the title track is anchored in a melodic progression that'd be better suited for your average ABBA song! In fact, what gets a little alarming is how much Arcade Fire seems to want to cycle through song structures and styles while still maintaining a mostly cohesive sound at its core, from a stab at slick new wave grooves on 'Signs Of Life' and 'Good God Damn' to more electronic with thicker, gurgling synths or borderline chiptune infusions on 'Put Your Money On Me' or 'Peter Pan', which somehow joins the ranks of songs with that title in recent years who completely misses any sort of soaring power or the subtext of the story! But it doesn't stop there, because then we get the broad carnival-esque squonk of the horns on 'Chemistry', or the two versions of 'Infinite Content', one which sounds like Arcade Fire trying acoustic-leaning country and the other with the faster riffs and distortion sounds like a stab at punk... except with strings embellishments and awful guitar compression, because I'm fairly certain Arcade Fire, Markus Dravs, or Thomas Bangalter from Daft Punk don't have much of a clue how to pull off that sound here. That's one element that's actually quite alarming, how sanitized and processed and lacking in color this record can feel, especially in its main guitar tones - and yes, I know, it's completely intentional for the intended satire, and we will get to that, but it strikes me as a bit rich on 'We Don't Deserve Love' for Win Butler to dump on the radio when this is easily their most commercial record to date, from the watery new wave textures that have no real verve or bite or funk to the synthetic drum machines they try to sneak in to the bass-overloaded mixes on 'Peter Pan' or 'Chemistry', which along with 'Electric Blue' and its squawking horns and incredibly annoying hook are easily some of the worst tracks Arcade Fire have ever made.

Granted, a big part of the problem comes in the vocals - and yet on some level I get what Win Butler and Regine Chassagne were trying. Of course in the latter case she's playing the glorified girl group-inspired backing vocals - which for some reason on songs like 'Creature Comfort' feel increasingly shrill - but she actually is given lead on 'Electric Blue'... and it turns out really badly, mostly because her voice and the synths clash pretty badly. And yet what I find even more obnoxious is the character she seems to play in the narrative of these songs: the fame-hungry, increasingly despondent girl who unfortunately becomes a victim of all of the projection that Win Butler is dumping on her - and considering that's his wife, you'd think he'd write something that doesn't come across so needy or desperate. But it's not like he fares better - the vocal melodies are nowhere close to bringing any sort of dramatic swell that used to be Arcade Fire's hallmark, and what's worse is that Butler is delivering his lines with the flat disaffection that's heightening the cynical nihilism in the worst way possible. Now there is a way to make this sort of attitude work, but you need wit or delivery that shows you're in on the joke or at the very least some intensity, and while 'Put Your Money On Me' gets close, it's nowhere near enough.

Granted, if we're looking for a broader statement to sum up Everything Now, potentially workable ideas that get close and then blow the landing might be pretty apt. And let me start by saying that there are ideas at the core of this album that had potential. I like the circular, self-contained headspace of the record, where the process of staying in the black perpetuates that consumerism that feeds the band, and calling out the yawning existential crisis in this culture to fill voids that used to be filled by humanity... look, that has weight to it. And I'll give Arcade Fire some points for acknowledging they are part of that system - they might have contempt for it, but they have to engage with it. But the problems start very quickly, with the first being that once again, Arcade Fire is more interested in their own story than making any broader societal point. Songs like 'Signs Of Life' and 'Infinite Content' and parts of 'We Don't Deserve Love' are certainly there to point and scoff, but it's not like it adds to a coherent statement - and considering how ham-fisted the language is, there isn't really an excuse why it isn't there. Now you could make the argument that the story behind 'Creature Comfort' could be fueling it, a constant stream of internalized self-loathing that culminates in the line 'God, make make famous / if you can't, at least make it painless', a mantra that plays as a girl tries to commit suicide while listening to Arcade Fire's first record, with Butler seemingly concerned that his art could have assisted in this step, especially in a world where this girl likely couldn't see all the privilege and possibilities around her... and yet the line that drew a lot more of my attention was 'I'm a liar, don't doubt my sincerity'. 

And let's make this abundantly clear: this is arguably the worst thing Win Butler could have said on this album, somewhat fitting thematically but utterly gutting any sort of emotional investment. Because if we want to get deconstructionist here, on some level representational art is never a complete portrait of the human experience, never quite true - and yet to quote Lydia Loveless, art still has the power to make you feel, to make it 'seem real'. That earnest power was always Arcade Fire's biggest weapon, so why in the Nine Hells would you only discard it, but seek to consistently undermine it? The most obvious example comes when they revisit the exact scene again on 'Good God Damn', seemingly all the more jaded as Butler prods her forward even as the hook would serve to highlight how a good God would disapprove... only for two songs later for him to disregard those Messianic figures that always let you down because maybe we don't 'deserve' love. It's a bluntly nihilistic statement that again, might have a kernel of truth in that no one person is entitled to affection from another, but when placed in context it gets even uglier, and it completely removes any dramatic weight behind replaying the suicide on 'Good God Damn'. And that ugly context comes from this record's relationship dynamics. I've already said I don't like how Win Butler writes for women on this album, but if possible he's even worse from his own perspective on songs like 'Peter Pan', as he tries to get this girl to live free and fly with him now, or on 'Chemistry' where despite this girl dancing with her boyfriend all night and him not even meeting her, he's got the possessive insistence there is something there - this was a punchline on a Weird Al record, but since Arcade Fire don't show the slightest sense of humor, I get the uneasy feeling it's supposed to be played straight with zero self-awareness. And then he has the nerve to demand trust on 'Put Your Money On Me', with such fun lines like 'If you think I'm losing you you must be crazy'. But think about the bigger picture: it's a song asking for our faith, even despite him saying he's a liar and a song later outright rejecting that sort of messianic martyr complex, even as the band's presentation reinforces it! 

In other words this is an album that, at its core, would think playing Russian Roulette to your own music isn't just philosophically necessary but romantic and meaningful and poignant, with the only respite being human connection that is so nauseatingly one-sided that it misses any chance to ask the question why. In Arcade Fire's closed circle of nihilism there's no need for a 'why' or even an acknowledgement of other perspectives, that looks down on radio songs and those kids hunting for love on the dance floor every night... even despite the fact that they've made their most shamelessly commercial, anodyne, and sterile project to date - in other words, damn near the dictionary definition of pretentious. By a fair margin this is Arcade Fire's worst album, netting a 4/10 and no real recommendation - but again, I've seen the signs of this since Reflektor, Everything Now certainly does not surprise me. But for the Canadian band that made albums like Funeral and Neon Bible and The Suburbs to fall this far, a band that has always had real artistic potential... yeah, there's no way this isn't a disappointment. The band might look down on 'infinite content', with the masses finding 'infinite contentment' but never passion... yeah, a lot of the content has more to it than this - skip it.

No comments:

Post a Comment