Trust Arcade Fire to put out an album bigger than itself. Everything Now (★★½) shares its name with the mock marketing campaign surrounding the album, and its fictive parent company, Everything Now Corp. If nothing else, this elaborate parody shows an impressive commitment to a bit. Between the Facebook posts written by fictional social media lackeys, a Twitter account periodically retweeting Lululemon, and the official site offering a branded fidget spinner for $109, it’s impossible to miss all the overt side-eye directed at the entertainment promotion machine. Arcade Fire even took to posting a mock review of Everything Now that manages to pre-emptively savage both their own work and music critics at the same time.
It’s somewhat appropriate for an album intended as a danceable, gleefully sardonic reaction against global cultural stagnation, but at its heart it is still a marketing campaign — albeit one that attempts to transcend the idea of a marketing campaign, or at least make an elaborate meta-joke out of the whole concept. That one of the most celebrated indie bands of the last two decades is now putting out smug criticism of mass culture leaves us to wonder whether or not they’re in on the joke themselves. Sometimes it’s funny, other times a little too nakedly clever for its own good.
That tightrope walk between parody and sanctimony also plays out in the album itself, and unfortunately Arcade Fire more frequently tips over into the joyless and preachy. As they probe the anxieties of living in a culture plugged into a constant stream of content and rail against the dumbing-down of human experience, the seriousness becomes off-putting. Whatever you might think of the elaborate build-up to Everything Now, it turned out to be a lot more fun than the actual album.
It didn’t have to be this way. By all rights, the band that gave us the ecstatic social commentary of The Suburbs should have been able to pull this one off, but their extended jeremiad against consumer culture in the digital age remains on a very shallow level. This is nowhere more true than on one of two songs entitled “Infinite Content,” which features Win Butler repeating “Infinite content/We’re infinitely content” ad nauseum. Cultural malaise in a hyperconnected world is a timely concept and could have yielded plenty of interesting ideas, but Butler rarely manages anything more substantial than “it’s the corporations, man.” At times they get close to the substantial message they’re aiming for, but with two songs titled “Infinite Content” and two “Everything Now,” it more often than not comes off as cleverness for its own sake and the critique falls apart under the weight of the lyrics’ self-seriousness. At best, it’s heavy handed, and at worst it’s a deadly combination of hollow and sanctimonious.
As always, Arcade Fire draw from an eclectic range of styles, this time pulling together bits of disco, reggae and punk, and they do find some success with a handful of fun moments scattered throughout. Coming right at the beginning of Everything Now, the title track is the album’s high point. A swelling, energetic song, it seems to falsely promise a dancing-at-the-end-of-the-world kind of record. “Electric Blue,” “Creature Comfort,” and the unexpected detour into country on the reprise “Infinite_Content” are also standouts, but nothing else in the album really compares to those first five minutes. Tracks like “Signs of Life” and “Peter Pan” start promisingly, but devolve into a repetitive slog. Butler himself sounds a little defeated, only occasionally managing to break out of his monotone with a yell here, a sigh there. Paring down their characteristically expansive sound into something more subdued and anxious does them few favours. Many years after Funeral and The Suburbs, it may be unfair to continue to hold Arcade Fire to the standard of those albums, but it’s hard to listen to Everything Now and not feel some nostalgia for the bombastic, stadium-filling pathos of their older work.
Everything Now may still have hints of that expansive, celebratory Arcade Fire sound, but the morose shallowness of the songwriting nearly overwhelms it. Good songs can only be wrapped in so many layers of irony before they suffocate in it. Raw cynicism can make for good songwriting material, but Arcade Fire is trying to somehow be sincere and wry and jaded all at the same time and they don’t quite pull it off here. Instead, the album looks and sounds like what it is — a wildly popular indie band that once won the Grammy for Best Album attempting to level outsider criticism of the mass culture industry. It’s easy to imagine a version of this that would work, if it weren’t so self-serious and so insistent on returning to the same few ideas again and again. This is a listenable enough album, in some moments even coming close to engaging and thought-provoking, but knowing what Arcade Fire are capable of, it’s hard not to be a little disappointed.
Everything Now is available now for purchase via Amazon.com and iTunes, and through streaming services.
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