We talk about scope a lot when we talk about Arcade Fire. Their songs are epic. Arena sized. Expansive. And so on. We’re not wrong to talk about Arcade Fire this way, but we may also miss the fact that even if their songs are epic, they are often built on lean, sinewy parts. Don’t let the iconic opening to “Wake Up” fool you, Funeral was so good because guitars jangled, drums snapped low in the mix, vocals wobbled and broke with a bone-thin hunger. The larger feel of Neon Bible, an album unnecessarily overlooked in favor of the band’s other work, has more to do with the huge echo around those songs than a piling on of sounds. Yes, The Suburbs does sprawl past these records, with bigger percussion and more layers of atmosphere, but it’s best moments still present Arcade Fire as a nervy rock band rather than pop expansionists.
The most easily noticeable change on Reflektor was the shift from that rock sound to something shinier, more immediately danceable. But it’s also the first album that doesn’t build the band’s palate outward, preferring instead a sort of paranoid repetition, one that makes the album fascinating but also wearing over its long run time. There’s some clear aesthetic and melodic links between those first four records, but they all went in different directions, and all succeeded at their highest levels when you could still sift through the layers and find the band feverishly playing.
Everything Now, then, becomes the first album for the band that seems like its unsure where to go. It’s got a unified aesthetic, from the album’s roll-out to the videos to the artwork, but the music itself doesn’t provide the same clarity as its packaging. It’s a solid album that delivers some decent entries into the band’s growing catalog. But it also feels, in spite of all its work to be the next, wider ring in the Arcade Fire atmosphere, slighter than it should.
It’s an album that continues the dance-music turn the band took on Reflektor, with big beats and electronic flourishes ruling the mix on these songs. The title track is all sweeping keys and strings, that disco beat on the drums, that bone-dry bass line. It all, sure, kind of sounds like Abba, but that’s not the trouble. It’s that the band goes missing under all those polished layers. Win Butler’s lyrics about the media and culture we consume, how it clutters up our heads, feel obvious and don’t quite take the idea anywhere. “Signs of Life,” turns the day-glo sheen of “Everything Now” into city-at-night shadow, but ends up in a similar place. “Spend your life waiting in line,” Butler laments in the sung/spoken verse, perhaps wagging a finger at the “cool kids stuck in the past.” It’s hard not to think of The Suburbs in these moments, how parts of that album got misunderstood as trite lamentations of suburban life rather than what they are — a critique of those whining laments. Everything Now never offers the same layers of perspective, so the lyrics, and the band’s usual fiery energy, never quite reach the heights they could.
This becomes frustratingly clear on “Creature Comfort.” Popping up four tracks into the album, the song’s music strikes a compelling new note for the band. It’s rough-edged electro-pop, the inevitable melding of their new dance-y aims with their blood-and-bone charge. But then the lyrics come in, and the dream gets disrupted. “Some boys hate themselves, spend their lives resenting their fathers,” Butler sings at first, then adding, “Some girls hate their bodies, stand in the mirror and wait for the feedback.” That these are presented as parallels is problematic enough, but it also just rings hollow. Butler tries to weave in some wrinkles late in the song, singing with a sneer about “American prosperity” and winking the line “I’m a liar, don’t doubt my sincerity.” But it’s too little, too late.
The album has too many moments like that. The skittering dub of “Peter Pan” is interesting musically, but the chorus — “Be my Wendy / I’ll be your Peter Pan” — lands flat. In these misfires, Arcade Fire drifts from its strengths. The songs sound like elaborate productions rather than feverish broadcasts. And the moments that used to seem so universal in Arcade Fire’s music now feel stock. A band so often compared to Springsteen is now hitting a tension similar to one The Boss had to contend with. He kept singing songs to a working-class ethos long after he earned himself out of that bracket. Arcade Fire is still singing to a group of “cool kids” that they have aged out of. They’re not quite willing to let the “kids” on Funeral grow up, and they’re not willing to let the kids shift from “us” to “them.”
Still, all that said, Everything Now is not without its merits. “Electric Blue” revels in its disco and new-wave influences in a way that feels more self-aware and impassioned than the rest of the record, and Régine Chassagne shines taking the lead on vocals. “Good God Damn” strips down the layers, nods more to Television than Blondie, and digs back into the shadows “Signs of Life” only hinted at. And “Put Your Money On Me” gets the band’s new formula just right. The music is hyper-glossy, thick with atmosphere, but the bass line cuts through like a beating heart and Butler sounds at his most open and vulnerable.
These are the moments that make Everything Now worthwhile. And for all its miscues, it’s a solid listen. If you’ve followed Arcade Fire this far, nothing here is likely to immediately deter you, save perhaps “Chemistry” and the exhausting back-to-back versions of “Infinite Content.” But the album just feels like a missed opportunity, the start of some ideas that never come to fruition. And that’s why this album feels slight. Not because of scope — the album keeps up with its predecessors on that front — but because the focus underneath that scope feels absent. It’s telling that the title song gets three tracks on this album, with an intro and outro on top of the proper song, and that there are two takes on “Infinite Content.” Everything Now doesn’t stretch out so much as it spreads itself thin, which is why it won’t ripple out like other Arcade Fire records. In the end, the band that made neighborhoods sound endless makes Everything into a cul-de-sac.