Arcade Fire’s 2013 rollout for Reflektor was, in many ways, as memorable as that record’s music. There was the guerrilla graffiti art campaign that cryptically ushered in awareness of the project before seeing blowback for property damage. There were the secret shows where fans were instructed to dress up in their shiniest. There was the Saturday Night Live post-show special that featured the likes of Michael Cera, Ben Stiller, and Bono. Then came the radio concerts, Coachella, and eventually an arena tour. Manager Scott Rodger called it “punching above their weight class,” but really, Arcade Fire were just bulking up to join the ranks of the heavyweights.
This, of course, was a couple album release trends ago. Since then, we’ve weathered the age of the surprise album and now move further into a time where streaming exclusivity might prove the new norm. But in 2013, Kanye West took to projecting music videos on the side of buildings and Daft Punk was unveiling commercials ahead of Coachella headliners. Arcade Fire were just following suit with what they considered their peers. The band may have been on an indie label, but you didn’t have to look further than singer Win Butler’s Yeezy-adorned feet to know where the band belonged.
Unsurprisingly, the strategy proved a success when looking at the numbers — the album topped the Billboard 200. But in its wake, both the band and the music landscape changed. These bold campaigns exhausted listeners, with the move to the surprise album release a direct reaction to those sick of the overwrought marketing that treated them less like fans and more like consumers. And, as such, Arcade Fire’s follow-up, Everything Now, is void of an event aesthetic, with an unveiling that has drifted towards the sheepishly traditional. The band put forth a whopping four advanced tracks from the collection, with the most extreme bit of creativity coming from the lead-up appearing in the form of a new Twitter account and song-title anagrams. It was like the band had learned from their mistakes, or they knew that their status was secure and less in need of frills.
Or, maybe, Arcade Fire sensed that Everything Now doesn’t deserve to be hyped. The 13-song collection is the first album of the band’s career that veers away from being a greater statement. Hell, the 13 songs are really just 10, with three reprises included, notably the record’s bookends that find different ways of presenting the title track. When fans actually sit down to hear Everything Now and find just six new offerings outside of the singles, it will be hard not to feel a small sense of disappointment, particularly considering how thin many of the new songs are on the album. In a word, Everything Now finds Arcade Fire in a place they’ve never been. It’s unsubstantial.
(Ranking: Every Arcade Fire Song From Worst to Best)
That’s not to say that they don’t still sound huge. With its six core members and rotating cast of collaborators — including producers Steve Mackey of Pulp, Geoff Barrow of Portishead, and, most notably, Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter — Everything Now still floats on a sea of ideas. The lead single and title track may ape Abba with its airy piano intro, but the propulsive bass line, orchestral flourishes, and pointed lyrics are very much the band’s own. It’s a song that both floats and prances, and its current fixture status on alternative radio is very much deserved. Regardless of how the album is received by critics or their longtime fans, the song “Everything Now” has already assured the band will reach a new level of commercial success with the biggest single of their career.
Elsewhere, “Creature Comfort” and “Electric Blue” also benefit from the band’s fearlessness. They work without a net on the former as they tackle suicide, unabashed in their aim to make a song that could be considered a life saver. On the latter, the band have never reveled so much in a groove, giving co-lead Regine Chassagne the chance to carry a song in the way she’s previously soared on tracks like “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” and “Haiti”. When the album comfortably bounces from disco to new wave, it doesn’t much matter that they aren’t tied together in the strictest sense. Still, the resulting work is a record without a signature sound. There’s nothing baroque about Arcade Fire in 2017, even if the strings and brass and woodwinds are still present.
But the cornucopia approach also reveals the instability of the Arcade Fire ship. On “Chemistry”, a foray into trumpet-tooting, up-strummed dub results in a watch-checking three-and-a-half-minute debacle. “You and me, we got chemistry,” Butler sings, clearly lying, the band sounding more out of tune with each other than ever. A pair of endeavors into “Infinite Content” show a song that sputters both as a snotty punk speedball and as sedated, mid-tempo jangle-rock. By presenting the song in multiple forms, the picture of Arcade Fire is of a band that can’t quite settle on what they want to sound like, throwing noodles at a wall until something sticks. And when Butler cops Debbie Harry’s rap cadence from “Rapture” on goofily earnest “Signs of Life”, homage quickly becomes parody.
Of the non-singles, there is only a single moment that sounds inspired. On penultimate number “We Don’t Deserve Love”, Win Butler is finally singing with vulnerability. His voice shakes fragilely while his elastic melody never quite settles in comfortably. It’s a song that has direction, that is mapped out with determination, that takes its time to build to a grand conclusion. Coming at the end of the album, it’s both a reminder of how emotionally affecting Arcade Fire can still be and just how devoid of heart-tugging swells the rest of the album is in the end. Because that’s always been the band’s MO, right? As they’ve grown from clubs to amphitheaters to headlining festivals and arenas, the challenge has been to maintain the emotional immediacy that can fill the biggest rooms. And, until now, they’ve been up for that task. But when “Everything Now” returns to close the album and we get the first big orchestral crescendo, it’s nourishing. In contrast, Everything Now’s bulk starves its audience from what they’d hope for in an Arcade Fire album.
Consider how many first experienced Reflektor. When the band uploaded the album in its entirety to YouTube, it wasn’t unreasonable to expect fans to push play, to sit back, and let the music wash over them. This wasn’t because Arcade Fire could successfully incorporate ’80s synth tones into their music. It was to feel something deeply and to feel it together. They were a band so big that its audience could genuinely feel like they were a part of it, that the “whoa ohs” of “Wake Up” weren’t complete unless everybody was singing along. Everything Now puts that chapter of the band to bed in favor of something more palatable to a wider audience, giving up being beloved in favor of being ambitious. When Butler opens the album proclaiming, “We can just pretend/ We’ll make it home again/ From everything now,” it lands like a eulogy to the band they used to be. There are plenty of new places for Arcade Fire to explore together, but for the audience, it feels a lot like being left behind.
Essential Tracks: “Everything Now”, “Creature Comfort”, “We Don’t Deserve Love”, and “Electric Blue”