The backlash to Arcade Fire is in full effect. The Village Voice recently ran a think piece titled “One Man’s Desperate Attempt to Find a Reason to Like the Arcade Fire.” The band’s latest album, Everything Now, is being slammed as a hollow, cynical and ill-conceived move to electronic dance music. All of it strikes me as a bit belated. It could very well have come with the release of 2014’s double-disc Reflektor–an album that was bloated with pretension and found the band substituting experiments in various genres for actual substantive songwriting.
However, the album’s lead single, “Reflektor,” was actually a triumph. Produced by LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy and featuring guest vocals from David Bowie, the electronic-disco track left me wondering why the entire album hadn’t been in that style–I felt sort of cheated. The album left me feeling disconnected, a feat for a band that despite my general cynicism and flirtations with nihilism still wrote two albums that in some ways influenced and in others captured my growth as a human being.
I had just proposed to my wife and we were both flirting with the idea of having a child–something that had once been inconceivable to both of us– when Arcade Fire’s 2010 LP Suburbs was released.
One verse from the album still haunts me. “So can you understand/Why I want a daughter While I’m still young?/I want to hold her hand/And show her some beauty/Before this damage is done/ But if it’s too much to ask/If it’s too much to ask/Then send me a son.”
Lead singers Win Butler and Regine Chassange don’t come anywhere near close to penning a line as impactful on Everything Now–and it’s not that they don’t seem to be trying. On “Creature Comfort” Butler sings about a girl who “dreams about dying all the time/She told me she came so close/Filled up the bathtub and put on our first record.” It feels superficial and exploitative delivered over a disco beat. And “Creature Comfort” happens to be one of the album’s better numbers.
“Signs of Life,” another disco stomper, that features Butler utilizing a rockabilly squeal is perhaps the most effective track on the album because it is undeniably catchy–but not exactly lyrically inspiring. Butler sings about “the cool kids stuck in the past” searching for “signs of life” every night, until they do it again. Visconti strings come swooping in and a saxophone line soars. Its reminiscent of Destroyer’s “Savage Night at the Opera.”
The album’s only other high point comes on “Electric Blue” which features solo vocals from Chassange. The track is sweet, sugary disco pop. The problem is that it’s nearly a cover of Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love.” You’ve heard this before.
So what happened? Why is Arcade Fire so distant and underwhelming on Everything Now? I’d argue that it isn’t the shift to electronic music. “Reflektor” proved the band can write engaging, complex and impactful electronic music.
However, they did it with friend James Murphy–a guy who understands how to inject electronic music with personality and meaning and who had worked with the band previously. This time around the group worked with a menagerie of producers, including one-half of Daft Punk and Steve Mackey of Pulp. The album is disconnected because it was created through a disconnected process.
And let’s not blame the dance music for taking the soul out of this rock band. Some of the worst tracks on Everything Now aren’t the big pop disco songs but slight ditties that feel like sketches–songs like “Infinite Content,” “Good God Damn,” “Peter Pan” and “Chemistry.” They exist but they don’t say much of anything, or sound like much of anything.
What is hardest to come to terms with is that Arcade Fire decided to write and release an album about the hollowness of internet culture during one of the most turbulent times in modern history. The damage Butler warned of on “Suburbs” appears to have been done. The dictatorial state, where the poor are forced to work themselves to death Butler sang about on Neon Bible appears closer to reality than ever before. But rather than rage, or lament, or speak up, Arcade Fire have done what a lot of other folks have–they’ve gone numb, they’ve retreated behind glossy production and throwaway lines.
I needed Arcade Fire to help me come to terms with the current state of our world as they have repeatedly in the past–instead they’ve chosen their major-label debut to backdown.