Arcade Fire, the alternative pop outfit best known for the smash hit “Wake Up,” released their fifth studio album last Thursday. True to form, the band has infused “Everything Now” with a persistent message—but unlike their past work, their music isn’t strong enough this time around to carry their excessively giddy philosophical insights.
This isn’t the first time the band has focused on our technological obsessions. Their latter two releases — “Reflektor” and “Everything Now”— considered what technology does to us. On the former album, the problem was technology’s impact on our capacity for human connection; on the latter, how it impacts our desire fulfillment.
Yet the technophobia is a disguise: the real problem is human insatiability. Sure, the digital age exacerbates it, but like Gyges’ ring, it can only activate a corruption already there. From the eponymous “Reflektor,” the album’s first single, Win Butler sings:
I thought, I found a way to enter
It’s just a reflektor
I thought, I found the connector
It’s just a reflektor
And if there was any doubt that he’s referencing the universal adoption of smartphones, here’s one of the verses:
Now, the signals we send, are deflected again
We’re so connected, but are we even friends?
We fell in love when I was nineteen
And now we’re staring at a screen
On the eponymous “Everything Now,” also the first single released, Butler sings:
Every inch of space in your head
Is filled up with the things that you read
I guess you’ve got everything now
And every film that you’ve ever seen
Fills the spaces up in your dreams. …
Every song that I’ve ever heard
Is playing at the same time, it’s absurd
And it reminds me, we’ve got everything now
Slate’s music critic, Carl Wilson, made an astute observation about Arcade Fire’s thematic preoccupations. “Arcade Fire (or at least Win Butler, the primary lyricist) was misled at an impressionable age by Radiohead’s OK Computer to think that anxious references to recent technology make for incisive rock lyrics,” he writes.
Indeed, on “Idioteque,” from their masterpiece “Kid A,” Radiohead’s Thom Yorke repeats a line that sounds quite similar to Arcade Fire’s latest:
Here I’m allowed
Everything all of the time
But perhaps innovation in “Everything Now” consists of leaving behind worries about the cold, alienating wasteland that our digital integration is delivering to us, and instead worrying about the superabundance of pleasure it is facilitating.
What ‘Everything Now’ Aims To Critique
Both visions are dark. But unlike the dystopic character of the middle-period Radiohead albums, or even Arcade Fire’s own “Reflektor,” “Everything Now” is disturbed by technology’s ability to grant us concentrations of happiness that we can’t absorb without being utterly changed for the worse.
The dislocations of technological advancement — interpersonal alienation, a sense of economic obsolescence, etc. — paint a stark picture of the world. But a world in which the sheer variety, quality, and accessibility of amusements is so wide and great that one is perpetually transfixed by them is arguably worse.
Once again, Butler and Co. are hardly the first to explore this idea. From the author of Ecclesiastes, writing hundreds of years before Christ, to the philosopher Hubert Dreyfuss, who just passed away a few months ago, there is infinite content on this theme out there.
Ultimately, “Everything Now” isn’t an ode to Luddite resistance, because it’s not the gadgets that are sinister: Butler and Co. locate the fundamental problem in human beings themselves. It’s impossible to listen to “(Antichrist Television Blues),” from “Neon Bible,” and not think the band has a robust anthropology of sin.
But before warning you of the dangers of irrepressible consumerism, the band participates in it: in the run-up to the release of “Everything Now,” the band engaged in behavior suggestive of the album’s central theme. From offering 20 different album cover variants, to giving their own album a lackluster review, to launching a cereal line as a “tie-in” to one of their songs, to giving away fidget spinner USB drives, the band’s marketing strategy has been engineered to function as a meta-critique of our rampant consumerism.
This Is A Distant Fifth To Arcade Fire’s Older Albums
These hijinks are good for a giggle, and it’s fun to reflect on an album’s themes. But the major problem with “Everything Now” is that the music itself is disappointing. In fact, I rank it a distant fifth, with their album “The Suburbs” coming in first, followed by “Neon Bible,” “Reflektor,” and “Funeral.”
From 2006 to 2010, during which they made “Neon Bible” and “The Suburbs,” Arcade Fire engaged in one of the most remarkable periods of songcraft I’ve ever witnessed. “The Suburbs,” which is possibly my favorite album of all time, picked an easy and predictable target. The shopping malls, the minivans, the life-flattening sprawl — this has been the stuff of elite condescension for some time now. Just a decade prior to 2010’s “The Suburbs,” the film “American Beauty” won an Academy Award for “Best Picture.”
Then came “Reflektor,” which, despite being overindulgent and unfocused, was still a fantastic release. In addition to “We Exist,” “It’s Never Over,” and the blissfully ethereal “Supersymmetry,” that album also gave us “Afterlife,” one of my favorite tracks of all time, which also happens to have the most moving music video I’ve ever seen.
“Funeral” is also outstanding, but it has a greater share of uninteresting moments than their later releases. It’s safe to say that “Everything Now” falls short of all the above.
Lyrics Don’t Matter As Much As Music
“Electric Blue,” a reference to Bowie’s “Sound and Vision” (one of my favorite songs of all time), is a candidate for song of the year. Whether it ends up getting that honor or ends up just missing out, it will be high on my list at year’s end. To get a sense for the song, think of Prince producing Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy.”
“Creature Comfort” is excellent, while “Peter Pan,” the “Infinite Content” combo, and much of “We Don’t Deserve Love” are also good, but the rest ranges from uninspired to underwhelming.
At least three of the songs — “Chemistry,” “Good God Damn,” and “Put Your Money On Me” — are among the worst they’ve released. Plus, the intro and outro segments are throwaways and utterly forgettable. These tracks should have been B-sided; they never should have made the cut.
The music, ultimately, is what matters most. I’ve given a fuller account of my philosophy of pop music in the past, so no need to cover this in great detail, but while dissecting an album’s themes or lyrics is an interesting exercise in art criticism, it should not be relevant when appraising a piece of pop music. “I Am The Walrus” decisively proved that words are incidental. The point isn’t that lyrics don’t matter, just that they shouldn’t factor into our evaluative calculus in instances such as this. In other words, they’re only relevant when discussing music qua art, but irrelevant when discussing music qua music. Think about it: whether an album’s social critiques succeed or fail doesn’t seem to impact the quality of the music itself.
Some of these songs just aren’t good enough as songs — and not because the band picked the wrong genres to incorporate, or the wrong instruments to use. The songs themselves just aren’t as strong in a melodic sense.
Being musically expansive, trying to fuse disparate styles into cohesive pop structures, challenging the expectations of your listeners: these are all good things. Some of the greatest records ever, such as Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk,” were self-consciously challenging. Yet the music must be prioritized; the integrity of the sound cannot be compromised in the name of exploration. “Honey Hi,” off of “Tusk,” is one of the sweetest pop moments in music history. It doesn’t have the structure of a typical single. In a sense, it represented a challenge to what pop demanded, and what the band’s studio wanted. But none of those unfulfilled yearnings matter, because the song’s quality is itself is so damn strong.
Take the two “Infinite Content” fragments. There is a good song buried in there, but it needed to be reworked until the melody became tighter and stronger. Instead, the two tracks come across as incomplete, and, given the repetitive lyrics, thematically overbearing.
We’re infinitely content
Sure, the band gets to convey a Very Important Message to you: these are meta-level statements about what the omnipresence of technological reach has conditioned us to demand. The “Infinite Content” duo showcase the same words to two very different musical styles. The specter of customizability with no end. If these are the categories of thought we now operate with, then what does this do to us, and how will it go for us in the end?
Message received. Just one problem: without strong melodies, an album’s message has little chance of enduring. The way to rise above the infinite buffet of content that is available to us all the time is to create memorable art.