With the 1967 release of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles helped make the concept album look cool. Framed by their ‘band-within-a-band’ conceit, the group sought to bridge the gap between popular music and artistic experience with an album that produced some of their best and most enduring songs, including ‘A Day In The Life’ and ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’. Now, fifty years on, Canadian art-rock outfit Arcade Fire have delivered their antithesis: a ‘non-concept’ album that’s long on repetition, short on substance and notably lacking in memorable hits.
Allow me to clarify: there is, in fact, a concept underpinning Everything Now, their fifth studio release. It’s just not in the way you might expect. The album comes hot on the heels of a promotional campaign led by the ‘Everything Now Corporation’, a spoof multimedia conglomerate created by the group, which featured music videos embedded with pop-ups, fake twitter feuds and mock reviews of their own record. It was all designed to satirise the consumerist age of information-overload and the instant gratification of the ‘everything now’ era, and it’s an interesting ploy which the brand – sorry, band – execute quite nicely. Until they get to the album itself, that is. Rather than building upon the intrigue of their marketing campaign, the songs are often shallow and tedious, providing the listener with all the disappointment of a half-baked pudding.
Rather than building upon the intrigue of their marketing campaign, the songs are often shallow and tedious, providing the listener with all the disappointment of a half-baked pudding
‘Infinite Content’ and the subsequent ‘Infinite_Content’ are perhaps most symptomatic of this. It’s a single song presented in two different versions – one propelled by frenetic guitar crunches and the other meandering in a lazy country lilt. Both see the couplet “infinite content, infinitely content” repeated over and over. If it is intended as some kind of meta-commentary on the postmodern fixation with the rush of over-activity, then the effort fails by not being all that overwhelming anyway. The title track, carried by an energetic disco-pop piano riff and pan pipes, is far more effective at hitting the conceptual mark than anything else on the album. Yet it too falls victim to a common flaw of the record, namely in the two reprisals that bookend the record: everything is said, and then said again and again. There is a stylistic flourish in the infinite loop created by the reprisals, but it’s one that would be far more effective if the album was actually worth listening to a second time around.
Elsewhere, large parts of the record are underwhelming at best. ‘Chemistry’, a strange, uncomfortable ska-influenced ditty must have sounded far less creepy in frontman Win Butler’s head, while the relentlessly dull ‘Peter Pan’ takes trite phrases like “how can I live with so much love?” and masquerades them as honest romantic declarations. ‘Electric Blue’, one of four promotional singles from the album, sees Régine Chassagne assume lead vocals on a wistful disco song about dancing through the aftermath of a breakup, while ‘Signs of Life’ shows sparks of what its title promises with a funk-infused bass line and a series of wry remarks about “cool kids stuck in the past” just looking for something to keep their feet moving.
If the music of Everything Now seems rooted in the past, it is the band’s own musical past which seems to haunt this record the most. ‘Good God Damn’ features another funk-themed bass riff and also an interesting call-back to a line from earlier track ‘Creature Comfort’, a song about body image so thick with cynicism that it’s hard to consider it sincere. On it, Butler laments a nearly-case of “assisted suicide” where the song’s subject “filled up the bathtub and put on our first record”, and ‘Good God Damn’ revisits the image of bathtubs and favourite records. There’s almost a sense of resignation in these references, a yearning for the redemptive power of Funeral, which is the kind of uplifting album you imagine might pull someone back from the edge of despair. Instead, it is the sound of existential anguish which echoes throughout Everything Now, with only the occasional moment of sincerity to counter the sardonic inflections of lines like “God, make me famous, if you can’t, just make it painless”.
…it is the sound of existential anguish which echoes throughout Everything Now, with only the occasional moment of sincerity
Such moments arrive on the album’s final two tracks proper. ‘Put Your Money On Me’ sees the band lose themselves amongst goofy lyrics about love backed by a catchy groove. ‘We Don’t Deserve Love’, easily the standout track, also stretches out for six minutes plus, but this time it’s a welcome move. As the song builds, it expands into something closer to the Arcade Fire of old, a band who take experiences of pain and turn them into something poetic. Their music used to be heartfelt and life-affirming, even when its subject was melancholic; Funeral and The Suburbs took themes of adolescent disaffection and dread and made them sound exquisitely beautiful. Everything Now offers far less heart and a great deal more cynicism for an ultimately disappointing listening experience, one which is unwittingly encapsulated by one of the album’s many, many repetitive lines: “it goes on and on, I don’t know if I want it”.