The most disappointing thing about Everything Now isn’t that it’s a bad album by Arcade Fire, but that it’s a bad Arcade Fire album. Sure, plenty of what ails this record–limp arrangements, flimsy metaphors, banal insights–could happen to anyone, but this record is a result of Arcade Fire’s worst tendencies all getting locked in a room together and enabling each other. This frustration gets compounded by the fact that some songs take off, and that thematically, Everything Now is as true to Arcade Fire as anything else they’ve ever done. The problem is that their instincts here are somehow entirely opposite of what they should be. It’s the sort of record where every move is somehow at least a questionable one.
There are a number of surface issues that plague Everything Now, but let’s start with a deep tissue problem: let’s talk about Arcade Fire and rhythm. Arcade Fire don’t use standard rock rhythm too often; instead, like a lot of mid-’00s bands, their beats have always been fairly dance-oriented. From the straight up disco of “Neighborhood #1” or “Rebellion (Lies)” to the pummel of “Keep the Car Running” or “Month of May,” they rely on, to quote Reflektor producer James Murphy, movement more than anything else. They use sheer propulsion–listen to “Rebellion (Lies)” and notice how under that disco beat, the song moves forward because of that relentless bass and piano–instead of any kind of accentuated groove or funk to get you to dance. That’s how most tracks on the band’s first 3 albums work.
Refkeltor and Everything Now, meanwhile, push for more of a groove. The drum patterns themselves aren’t too overtly different, but the way everything clicks around them changes. Instead of “Rebellion (Lies)”‘s hectoring gallop, “Reflektor” has interlocking guitar lines, nimble bass, and piano chords that all bounce around each other. The band’s rhythm section isn’t quite a perfect fit for it in terms of sheer ability, but it works because there are enough musical ideas to keep things fresh. Everything Now keeps the emphasis on groove, but largely ditches the attention to detail, much to the music’s detriment. Look at the differences between “We Exist” and Everything Now single (for some reason) “Signs of Life.” “We Exist” is tightly wound and varied in its approach, while “Signs of Life” keeps that same shallow groove for the entire runtime and chucks horns and conga drums in haphazardly because, I don’t know, James Murphy wasn’t around to tell the band he already wrote “Yeah.” Similar problems–among others–plague “Chemistry,” “Peter Pan,” and “Good God Damn” because, like I said, this isn’t a band who can sustain groove the way they can do anthemic rush or tension-and-fire release.
Nor are they the kind of band who should write “Peter Pan” or “Chemistry,” let alone put them back to back. Everything Now‘s first half teeters between promise and flailing, but these two songs put the record in a nearly inescapable rut. “Peter Pan,” for everything else you can say about it, at least seems like it’s trying to be something. That something might be a bizarre dub/reggae track with an overburdened metaphor, but I’m willing to chalk up to a failed experiment (okay, that and “We can live, I don’t feel like dying” is a good line). “Chemistry,” meanwhile, is quite possibly Arcade Fire’s worst song. Rote lyrics with tired imagery, boring capitalist takedowns, utterly baffling instrumentation (dear God, that guitar riff is awful), and Win Butler at his most insufferable is everything wrong with Everything Now in 3 and a half minutes that feel like 6. “Chemistry”‘s problem isn’t that it’s experimental or kooky; Arcade Fire will always be a band that swings big on trying weird or clunky shit, but that it sounds so aimless and self-satisfied. You get the feeling that the band isn’t totally committed to the material, which you couldn’t say for like, the more churlish material on Neon Biblie.
Other times, the experiments…work? No one’s going to put the “Infinite Content” suite in the upper-tier of Arcade Fire songs, but at least the panicked strings of the first half match the boneheaded stupidity of the central “Infinite content, we’re infinitely content” lyric, and the second half is unabashedly pretty. “Electric Blue,” led by Regine Chassange, is kind of minimal synth pop for a band known for having at least 6 people on stage, but it’s one of a select few great standalone tracks here, plus the outro is excellent. There’s a longing in “We Don’t Deserve Love” and “Put Your Money On Me” that saves them both, too; really, “Good God Damn” aside, the second half of Everything Now’s reach almost matches its grasp.
Every Arcade Fire album, in some way or another, wants to find what’s real. Funeral wanted to find genuine emotion behind loss, Neon Bible yearned for spiritual truth beyond the bright lights and noise of consumerism, The Suburbs aspired to find the individual adrift in subdivisions and stripmalls, and Reflektor was worried that technology was turning everything into a reflection of a reflection of a reflection. Everything Now pulls at most of those threads, but with the new twist that the cultural noise is actively pushing down on you instead of just buzzing in the background. “Every song I’ve ever heard is playing at the same time, it’s absurd/And it reminds me we’ve got everything now” is as perfect a description of the hell that is music streaming that I’ve come across, quasi-shallow lyricism be damned, and that batshit line about Funeral aside, “Creature Comfort” perfectly nails the buzzing dread of being overwhelmed and inadequate (the music also works because it uses propulsion more than groove).
There’s a lot of Neon Bible that comes through on Everything Now. “Good God Damn” delves into matters of faith, and it’s music recalls “Ocean of Noise,” but with stiff funk as a lesser replacement for bossa nova, while “Put Your Money On Me” wants something real against “Clouds made of Ambien,” and finds the truth in the arms of a lover. Penultimate track “We Don’t Deserve Love” recalls “Windowsill” with its desire to transcend or to feel, but as gorgeous as “WDDL” is, it and “PYMOM” lack that last emotional and musical push into catharsis that would put them with the band’s best material, and counteract songs like “Chemistry.” As is, Everything Now wants to set it’s spirit free, but it’s too unwilling to make the leap.
And more than the stifling production or Win Butler’s occasionally grating singing, it’s those flashes of almost brilliance that make Everything Now so disappointing, because you can see what it’s going for, and where it falls short. If the rhythm section wasn’t so overmatched, or if the arrangements were more clever, things would work. If the band didn’t couch their worries in Pop-era U2 smarm, it would work. If even the stronger material kicked one gear higher–if “Put Your Money On Me” or “We Don’t Deserve Love” just went for it the way “Afterlife” or “We Used to Wait” did, then it would work. But the record, crucially, is stilted where it needs grace, and thoughtless where it needs nuance. The record is afraid of what we’ve lost, but it needs to scorn less and empathize more. Arcade Fire are at their strongest when they lean into sentiment. On Everything Now, they move past the feeling.