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Review: Arcade Fire lack ambition on the disco-inspired ‘Everything Now’

Arcade Fire

The first song released from Arcade Fire‘s new album Everything Now was the title track, a dose of disco nostalgia with co-production by Thomas Bangalter of Daft Punk, who had a #1 hit with their own traditional disco song just four years ago. (“Everything Now” also has co-production by Pulp’s Steve Mackey.) It was an underwhelming lead single, but not enough to spark the “Remember When Arcade Fire Were Good?” and “Let’s All Stop Pretending That Arcade Are Still Great” headlines that came out 24 hours later. Arcade Fire albums are too full of surprises to be judged on one song — could lead Neon Bible single “Black Mirror” have prepared anyone for the majestic “Intervention”? — and it was still worth waiting to see how Everything Now would surprise us. Now it’s here, and for the first time ever in Arcade Fire’s career, there are no surprises.

The singles that followed the title track were in the same general disco/synthpop ballpark, and they give you a good idea of what to expect from the rest of the album. An album entirely like “Everything Now” is a misstep for a band like Arcade Fire, and not because disco sucks (it doesn’t). Arcade Fire have succeeded in this realm before. “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” was the best Madonna song of 2010, and the James Murphy-produced “Reflektor” genuinely sounded like a combination of Arcade Fire and LCD Soundsystem at their best (its David Bowie cameo didn’t hurt). The issue is Everything Now lacks ambition.

Funeral packed so much ambition into a concise 10-song album. It was the Sgt. Pepper’s model of a rock album, it’s no wonder music nerds (and everyone else) went immediately crazy for it. Neon Bible equaled Funeral in power; it was underrated only because it lived in its predecessor’s shadow. The Suburbs and Reflektor began a second era of Arcade Fire. They were ambitious in magnitude and tried out all kinds of new sounds — more of a White Album approach. They were less tight than Funeral but each had plenty of songs on that album’s level. Even the failures were exciting.

On Everything Now, hardly anything is exciting. The lyrics range from predictable to self-parody. On the chorus of “Peter Pan,” they rhyme “we can walk if we don’t feel like flying” with “we can live if we don’t feel like dying.” You can guess the second line before they even sing it — not something you’d expect from a band who rhymed the title of their album Reflektor with “thought you were praying to the resurrector.”

The characters on this album are “some boys” and “some girls,” they’re “a thousand boys that look like you” and “a thousand girls that look like me,” they’re “those cool kids stuck in the past.” It sounds like they’re channelling the every-suburban-kid approach that they emerged with, but without the big-hearted sincerity that caused so many actual suburban kids to latch on to their music. On “Creature Comfort,” they sing about the impact Funeral had on people, but fail to come out with a song that could cause that type of impact again.

On Everything Now, the only people who sound “stuck in the past” are Arcade Fire. A move towards dance music could be seen as an attempt to stay modern, but the musical direction of Everything Now has the opposite effect. The disco and pop influences on Everything Now are just about as old as the Talking Heads, Bowie, and Springsteen influences that are on Funeral, but Arcade Fire found something new to say with the latter. The songs here — the title track especially — sound transported to present day from 1977. When The Rolling Stones, Kiss, and Blondie went disco, they were trying something new (even if they were faced with backlash from the rock community for doing so). Everything Now sounds more conservative and backwards-thinking than Arcade Fire’s rock albums do.

On that rare song where Arcade Fire do deviate from the formula, the results are even less enticing. “Chemistry” is the kind of reggae/ska/rock song that sounded played out before Arcade Fire even formed their band. “Infinite Content” is the kind of wearing-punk-as-a-costume song that Arcade Fire have done better before with “Month of May” and “Joan of Arc.” This song (which appears on the album twice, the second time in ballad form) has possibly the album’s most eye-rolling lyric, and repeats it ad nauseam: “Infinite content, infinite content, we’re infinitely content.” It’s an easy, obvious pun, and it has the kind of fear of the digital age that anyone listening to Arcade Fire in 2017 has probably heard too many times before. It’s an insult to the intelligence of Arcade Fire’s fans to think this song would speak to anyone.

Front-loaded with the singles, the album actually hits its highest point towards the end. Late-album songs “Put Your Money on Me” and “We Don’t Deserve Love” would’ve flown as perfectly fine deep cuts on Reflektor or The Suburbs. They’re easier to listen to than the pre-release singles of Everything Now if only because they sound more humble. The high point is brief though. Like they do on The Suburbs, they end the album with a reprise of the opening title track. When The Suburbs did it, it felt like a welcome comedown after the long strange trip that album takes you on. This time, it induces a sighing “don’t remind me.”

Everything Now instills a fear that Arcade Fire are falling into mediocrity, but it isn’t time to mourn for their greatness just yet. The non-album Mavis Staples collaboration “I Give You Power” released earlier this year is a stronger song than anything on Everything Now, and it reminds you that unity is a better look for an Arcade Fire song than cynicism. The band still know how to put on one of the best arena rock shows around, and their upcoming tour should be no different. Stylistic shifts are often necessary for longevity. Let’s just hope next time they do it without sounding so spiritless.

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