Monday, October 2, 2017

album review: 'a fever dream' by everything everything

So here's one of the more exasperating things I've had to experience as a music critic: hearing a lot of music that is certainly good and passable and agreeable but it just a shade away from true greatness, and at least to your ears you could hear the exact change they could make to get there and it's just not materializing, no matter how much you want it. You might like the band, you might like the ideas they're trying to explore, you might like their experimental progression... but it's just not assembling in a way that connects for you.

Now for Everything Everything they definitely didn't start there - they may have had a knack for catchy melodies and willfully oblique writing that walked the line of insufferable, but between some truly awful synth choices and the caterwauling of their frontman Jonathan Higgs, their debut Man Alive just did not connect for me whatsoever. And then something weird happened: the band got better, streamlining their sound, punching up their groove, and taking their lyrics into territory that was still odd but a shade more accessible all the same. Arc was a good first step, Get To Heaven was even better, damn near on the cusp of greatness... and yet every time I'd go back to it I'd feel oddly distant from it. The hooks were better than ever, Higgs' voice had grown on me a bit, and the greater focus on rhythm was potent... but I always got the feeling the band didn't always have a firm grasp of their strengths, which led to distracting non sequiteur moments or mix choices that never flattered the group as much as they should.

So while there was a part of me that was a bit concerned when I heard Everything Everything was heading towards a more 'conventional' sound on their newest record, I had at least the hope it'd come with sharper production choices and a little more focus overall rather than blunting their experimentation entirely. They had changed up producers again, bringing in James Ford who is most well known for working with Arctic Monkeys and Florence and the Machine... but on the flip side he had also worked on the last Depeche Mode and Mumford & Sons record, and how much he'd guide the sound was anyone's guess. So what did Everything Everything deliver on A Fever Dream?

Here's the thing: I think this record is fine enough - it's got a brain and the smart framing to place its social commentary in nuanced context, the complicated rhythms and more progressive angles while toned back do make for some interesting and distinct songs, and overall I'd make the argument it mostly achieves what it's trying to do... and yet with A Fever Dream Everything Everything remains a band I just am not connecting with as much as I'd like, and I can't help but feel that it is a step back from the meatier sound that made Get To Heaven more palatable to me. I don't think this is a bad record and I definitely see the appeal... but as with even the albums they've released I like, I just don't think the group is my thing, that's all.

So I want to start with the content on this record, because if I was looking to recommend it for any reason, it would be this, mostly because Everything Everything is willing to delve into some degree of nuance in its politics. Yes, there is the expected broadside at the current president of the United States with 'Big Game', but I'd honestly say it's one of the weaker songs here, more designed for cheap provocation than actually making a real point... even if when you examine the overarching feel of the writing, it can make a certain amount of sense. After all, the title of this record isn't kidding, the past couple years could very well feel like a fever dream - emphasis on 'fever', as decisions are made with less and less rationality and Everything Everything want to discuss why that is, and like KONGOS before them they're looking primarily from the perspective of the person making those decisions. On the song that's most tenuously connected to the theme we have the inadequacy complex of 'Can't Do', which is more rooted in Jonathan Higgs' writer's block than anything, but it's followed by 'Desire', where people who don't know what they want or what might be good for them just take and consume endlessly, and 'Run The Numbers' shows a populace that is increasingly enraged by those condescending to them that they say screw the experts and seemingly vote en masse in a populist bloc. And this is where I think the politics can get a bit shaky, because then we get 'Put Me Together', which takes an oddly mournful and borderline sympathetic tone to a guy showcasing clear xenophobia, which could well be the root of these bad decisions. If anything this record has a lot more contempt for those with reckless undeserved arrogance thanks to social status like on 'Good Shot, Good Soldier', or the trolls who spew venom on-and-offline with 'Ivory Tower', completely able to escape consequences - and yeah, I've got no qualms with taking aim at their nihilistic nonsense, but at the same time people do possess their own free will, and saying 'screw the experts' and giving in to blind ignorant rage isn't an excuse for that choice and its consequences, even if a song like the title track makes it the seductive appeal pretty obvious. If anything, I wish this record actually showed the consequences instead of ending on a pretty flimsy 'we'll get through it all together' note, but on the other hand, sometimes they might not experience them, or even care if they do, but on the other other hand, it's still not really an excuse - one of the reasons KONGOS' Egomaniac actually worked was that it followed through in a way this doesn't.

But okay, from a conceptual writing standpoint there's ambition here, and outside of tunes like the title track and 'New Deep' that feel underwritten, it's a pretty sharp record... so why doesn't it work more for me? Well, this takes us to the production and instrumentation, and remember how I said I was never really a fan of Everything Everything's taste in synthesizers? Yeah, that's definitely an issue here, because in scaling back the heavier grooves, there's a greater focus on those keyboard lines and synth layers, and I'm just not a fan of the tones chosen, especially opposite drumwork that feels a lot more skittering and unstable. It's not all bad: the shimmering swell behind 'Good Shot, Good Soldier' takes its time and builds off the groove well, and I like the choice to go nearly a capella on the final hook, but on songs like 'Desire' and 'Ivory Tower' it just feels like excess gloss tossed in for more clashing against the sharper guitar line. And on 'Desire' in particular that's not exactly a good thing, especially as with that song and 'Run The Numbers' there's some of the few that actually build some heaviness and groove - yes, 'Ivory Tower' gets close with the faster drums but it just gets overwhelmed until the outro. But some of that feels intentional - this is a softer, less imposing record than Get To Heaven, and the easiest way to do that would be to tone back the muscle, and it's not like the wiry bass on 'Can't Do' or 'Night Of The Long Knives' can't work... but these songs are front-loaded and don't exactly compensate for the bleary stab at psychedelia on 'Put Me Together', or the pseudo-progressive pileup of the title track that doesn't really pay itself off much, and both songs run longer than they should. And the ending of the record is a bit of a mixed bag too - 'New Deep' is a glorified interlude with good piano work but little else, and 'White Whale' tries to open up for a really potent guitar-driven finale, with the chord progression almost reminiscent of Muse, but it's undercut by how brittle it can feel in that low end.

And yes, part of this ultimately circles back to Jonathan Higgs' vocals... and I'm still on the fence about him. Don't get me wrong, he's got an impressive range and when he's multi-tracked properly with a thicker cushion of backing vocals I can even get behind his falsetto... but I don't tend to find his delivery all that expressive, and this record can get very shrill very quickly. I think one of the reasons I'm more forgiving of Get To Heaven is his choice to stay more in his lower register, because here he's often competing with guitars and the added synths, and it leads to a mid-to-upper range of the mix that just feels overstuffed, especially on the title track. And yeah, I get that part of the point is that the record has that head cold feel where holding thoughts together can be frustrating and confusing, but that excuse can only take you so far.

So as a whole... I'm conflicted on this. I wish I liked the overall sound of the record more to fit with its writing... but at the same time some of the issues do run deeper than I'd like to otherwise admit. I think more than ever it's just not for me and an unfortunate step back from Get To Heaven, so I'm giving it a very strong 6/10 and a recommendation, but a slightly qualified one if you're expecting Everything Everything to get more aggressive. I see fans like this a fair bit, so if you're interested it's worth a look... but otherwise... again, not for me, but if you're curious it's worthwhile.

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