In 2007 the New Yorker published a controversial piece by Sasha Frere-Jones titled, “A Paler Shade of White,” in which he mourned the lack of miscegenation across racial boundaries and specifically that of black musical influence into white indie rock. The piece opens with an anecdote of a performance by Arcade Fire, a band he liked.
“I realized that the drummer and the bassist rarely played syncopated patterns or lingered in the low registers. If there is a trace of soul, blues, reggae or funk in Arcade Fire, it must be philosophical; it certainly isn’t audible. And what I really wanted to hear, after a stretch of raucous sing-alongs, was a bit of swing, some empty space and palpable bass frequencies.”
Though he added the caveat that “there’s no point in faulting Arcade Fire for what it doesn’t do,” it was enough to move Will Butler, a composer and core member of the expansive band, to rebut the characterization with an audio file in which snippets from the band’s songs were juxtaposed against music from various black musicians, as well as that of older white artists, like the Beatles and the Clash, who took clear influence from those traditions.
Most fans were presumably not looking for those influences anyway, and admittedly what can come off as overly broad and unbearably naive also constitutes their appeal — the height, the width, the uplift and comfort of an encompassing voice. If they often aim too wide, for too much and end up mostly just sounding aimless, it’s hard to deny the charm of trying in the first place. But Reflektor, their fourth album, is where they started to run into problems of intent. To these ears, it’s not clearly worse than the band’s other albums (save 2007’s Neon Bible, which widened their sound and adorned their communal take on adolescent confusion with a dark, unashamedly melodramatic weight), but besides suffering from the inconsistency that plagues double albums, it was the band’s first attempt at a “dance” record. More visibly than ever, they were drawing from black musical traditions: disco, dub-reggae, syncopated rock. And more than ever, save a few standouts, the songs sounded like watered-down versions thereof.
At the same time, their lyrics suffered increasingly from problems that had plagued every album after the band’s debut, Funeral. They were never particularly strong, but on that album the vagaries were kept personal, the adolescence fantastical. As the band looked outward, the flimsiness of viewing the world through that lens made itself apparent.
Neon Bible had a couple of songs that were just shots at one-dimensional religious zealots; follow-up The Suburbs dealt in part with maturation, but could skip straight to cynicism: “So I wait in line, I’m a modern man / And the people behind me, they can’t understand.” This latent bitterness came into full view on Reflektor, which took up disconnect and discontent as primary themes and gave up any attempt to explore it.
The release cycle for the band’s latest, Everything Now, somehow amplified all these aspects of miscommunication. Most notable, at first, was the marketing campaign fronted by “Everything Now Co.” that included revealing the track list in anagram form, holding an AMA by an “intern,” pretending to sell fidget spinners and actually selling parodies of the slightly less self-aware Jenner shirts, parodying Stereogum after they published a negative article about the band and emphasizing their recent acquisition by Billboard. It signaled a lack of wit at best, pettiness at worst, thinly veiled behind ideals and irony.
Parallel to that, of course, was a rollout of singles that underwhelmed. A common response to the lead single, the title track, was that it was a weak ABBA imitation. Several years ago this may have been a way of faulting the band for its influences, but in a more retroactively embracing musical and critical landscape, the phrase implied more than that — that the problem was in the execution. Nobody needed an audio file to get that.
Perhaps the month prior to release made the record’s faults a little easier to identify. It’s hard to defend a pair of songs that solely repeat “Infinite Content / We’re Infinitely Content” when there’s no ambiguity about what they’re going for. But perhaps the record does even that frame a disservice — repeating a line like “Good god, damn” isn’t ironic, it’s just bad. The same applies to a lesser degree to “Chemistry,” on which the title constitutes every other word, and “Electric Blue,” where a chorus of “na"s blur into each other, and they blur into the gelatinous layer of Régine Chassagne’s falsetto. If it’s meant in part to be commentary on “terrible song(s) on the radio,” as a later song mentions, the joke’s on them: the first thing one might recall is the band’s own song, “Wake Up,” with it’s chorus of “oh”s.
And even then, the comparison isn’t flattering.
Nor is the intentional reference on “Creature Comfort,” a blocky, synth-driven attempt at heaviness: “She told me she came so close / Filled up the bathtub and put on our first record.” The song’s smarter than it might seem at first glance — the chorus line, “just make it painless,” has the same vocal melody line as the bridge on “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus),” a song from Reflektor, that half-consoled, “but you will get over.” But the subtext is rendered worthless by scenarios like that, thrown in to add levity to a trite song about the emptiness of material possession. That they reference it on “Good God Damn” confirms the weird sense of self-satisfaction that drives the record.
Being enamored with a line or few isn’t a fault in itself — who would rag on Morrissey for being drunk on his own words? But the most successful instances of repeated lines is that they felt worked up to, the act of repetition one of having had the freedom, or at least the brashness, to make it heard. Even if the lines Arcade Fire chose to emphasize were stronger, they suffer from the same detachment that detracted from Reflektor, that are epitomized by jokes about suicide. Why should we care about the seducer in “Chemistry,” or the desperate couple on “Put Your Money on Me”? The songs that focus on characters — quick constructs, really — lie in a weird area between the specificity of scenario and the broadness of sentiment, like they can’t decide what kind of song they want to be. There’s an outline, but no movement within it. And when the band aims towards a peak, like the Mary Magdalene-referencing verse at the end of “We Don’t Deserve Love,” there’s nothing to contain it but a list of cliches. “Keep you waiting, hour after hour / Every night, in your lonely tower” for a reason to care, perhaps.
There are glimpses in the music. The title track aims to be an anthem that undercuts “Common People” for the concerned luddite; the scope can’t be denied, and the instrumental accumulation, from the woodwinds that preface the verse to the strings that swell irritably into the bridge guitar, give the song a more personal and inclusive feeling that the lyrics forego (which here is a conscious decision). The sentiment tires after a bit, but that’s not new — it’s conviction that the band does best. None of the other songs are as successful in whole, but with a band this large, hope can come in pieces: the ascending and descending percussive sound in the right channel of “Signs of Life,” the guitar riff in the left on “Peter Pan” pushing against the vocal melody. But there aren’t enough of them to make up for how repetitive the music is, after the third song, a single idea extended without movement, in line with the lyrics. It’s a cynic’s idea of dance music, pure repetition, with the same idea in every measure, come to life.
And then, halfway through, the album loses that. The bass slows to a dour halt, a jarring contrast to the rush of the first half, which is surely intentional, the sound of collapse after overload. But after all that set-up, all it really seems like is exhaustion, and the only difference is the pace of stagnation. Everything Now is a hard record to defend because the narrative it presents is set in stone, a piece with no surprises, no possibility of change, none of the wonder that held kept past records suspended in their own world. Arcade Fire thinks you want everything now, thinks they know what you are and what people are and why. But really, all we want is a little modesty, a little communication, a little fantasy. A little something more authentic than the content they handed down.
Eric Ng is a writer for Daily Lobo Music. He can be reached at email@example.com