MusicWeekend

Arcade Fire Gives Up on Life

Didn’t U2 already make these albums in the ‘90s?

To learn how crushingly the new Arcade Fire album has disappointed fans, critics, and providers of online content, one need only glance at their Metacritic page. To fully comprehend why requires several listens, each more dumbfounding than the last. Anyone who associates the band with uplift will find the new Everything Now, out since July, an enervating thing: a sniveling black hole of negativity, littered with ostensible protest songs aiming to critique societal problems from a soapbox ten million miles above their fanbase. “Infinite Content,” for example, jolts over a straightforward punkish beat as lead rock hero Win Butler repeats the same line over and over: “Infinite content/infinite content/we’re infinitely content.” Get it? “Content” meaning posts on social media, but he’s making a pun on “content” the adjective! He’s calling out the emptiness of our technology-addicted lives! He doesn’t think we’re infinitely content at all–he thinks the internet lulls us into a false sense of security! The next song, a slower, sweeter country-tinged jangler, is also called “Infinite_Content”, with the same exact lyric, except they’ve added an underscore to the title. Get it? Computers!

These songs baffle the critical faculties. To state point blank that “Infinite Content” and “Infinite_Content” aren’t clever is to belabor the self-evident. Likewise, calling Everything Now a failed stab at profundity feels as productive as feigning shock that the current president said something vile and semiliterate in the media yesterday. How exactly the band wound up here is the relevant question.

I won’t mimic the consensus and call Arcade Fire a great band undone by sanctimony when they’ve been bombastic and heavy-handed since day one. Since their beloved debut, Funeral (2004), they’ve specialized in spacious, grandly beautiful rock anthems, undercut by specific deflationary moments of bathos that could easily have been excised. Funeral’s “Wake Up,” widely considered their greatest and most moving song, soars over rhythmic power chords, acoustic classical instruments from violin to accordion, and a massive, wordless football chant of a chorus. The effect rouses — right up to when Butler, pumping his figurative fist, ends a verse by screaming “I guess we’ll just have to adjuuuuuuuust” as if expecting cheers from all the young adults in the audience who’ve felt growing pains, whereupon the mushy qualifiers (“I guess”) and the weak verb (“adjust”) collapse under the weight of the anthemic moment. Often they powered through anyway. Their second album, the scary, deeply felt Neon Bible (2007), infamously recorded in an abandoned church, uses the consequently murky sound to simulate a humming, ominous “Ocean of Noise.” Guitars and pianos and booming organ and, by metaphorical extension, the entire world, all crash down apocalyptically around them, lending physical reality to the political urgency of their songwriting. The Suburbs (2010), a relaxed, rhapsodic variant on the same classically textured arena-rock blend, is pretty enough, at least to compensate for an overlong running time and the band’s labored attempt to make a definitive statement on maturity, adolescence, and the decline of tradition in the modern world. But ever since Pitchfork anointed them voices of a generation — articulating the existential anxieties of kids who grow up, move to the city, and struggle with adulthood and their place on the traditionalism/modernity axis — they’ve always felt the weight of the world more heavily on their shoulders than any band deserves or should presume. Condescending social commentary by a large, communitarian band of Canadian art-rockers will inspire nobody in 2017. Music that once swept and thundered has turned tighter, harsher, and more unpleasant. Songwriting that once voiced progressive resolution now howls with conservative despair.

To students of rock history, Everything Now and its predecessor, Reflektor (2013), will sound awfully familiar: didn’t U2 already make these albums in the ‘90s? Arcade Fire’s career arc resembles U2’s exactly: insufferably earnest arena-rock band starts out sincere, anthemic, grandiose before tiring of their own reputation and deciding to embrace electronics, irony, and such. My, how history repeats itself. It must embarrass fans across the global indie-rock community that U2 did it better; few bands anywhere have matched the sonically warped, chemically tainted, wacky garish neon fury of “The Fly” and “Staring at the Sun.” Reflektor and Everything Now, meanwhile, stand as definitive proof that those who don’t know what irony is shouldn’t dabble in it. While rock-conventional song structures still dominate, both records abound with glittery synthesizer, honking horns, jaggedy postpunk beats, dancier tempos and textures, really, anything to prove they’re not some stodgy old rock band, they’re cool. They display no aesthetic commitment to these musical usages themselves, flaunting them instead as tokens of edge, an association that works only when being a stodgy old rock band is the backdrop.

Despite many flatfooted attempts at disco and the unfortunate choice to follow a song called “Hey Eurydice” with “Hey Orpheus,” Reflektor occasionally sparkles, primarily on the soaring guitars of “Normal Person” and the xylophone-backed nursery rhymes of “Here Comes the Night Time.” On Everything Now the musical blend curdles utterly. The glowing keyboards, dinky flutes, angry rhythm guitar parts, assembled sound effects, and the like are incorporated poorly, failing to mesh with the grander rock structures that subsume them, sticking out like otiose clip-on accessories. The resulting music is awkward, pinched, and ugly. “Signs of Life,” whose death-march bassline is repeated exactly by an abrasive horn section, epitomizes a cramped strain that is now the band’s operative mode. “Creature Comfort” is perhaps definitive: the song’s cheerfully affectless guitar riff plus synth squelch, combined with Butler’s declamatory talk-singing, aim to evoke classic dancepop, New Order’s “Temptation” maybe. The talk-singing more closely resembles an eager parody of a) white singers trying to sound rhythmically astute; b) Bono’s vocal delivery on “Hawkmoon 269”; c) Arcade Fire’s prior output.

That’s to say nothing of the lyrics. “Creature Comfort” is an anti-suicide plea ambiguous enough not to specify whether the band’s own “first record” saved a fan from suicide or drove her to it. There’s no empathy; the person in question is treated like a cautionary tale to wring one’s hands over. I count two songs on Everything Now that haven’t completely given up on life: “Peter Pan,” whose plinked keyboards and funkoid bassline are sparse enough to let the song’s emotion breathe, and the penultimate “We Don’t Deserve Love,” whose climactic descending guitar hook suits both the queasy synth noodling in the verse and the quiet pathos of a romantic anthem that, after an album’s worth of vitriol, aims to establish love as humanity’s redeeming factor. As for the vitriol, it’s disheartening. Once they wrote compassionately and from experience, especially on The Suburbs; their grand proclamations about alienation and adulthood were delivered by narrators implied to have lived through such processes. The songs on Everything Now diagnose the evils of millennials — kids these days! — from the voice of an older man who knows everything. Few things are more tedious than a band lecturing their fanbase on the fanbase’s moral failings and the necessity for everyone to act more like the band. Which song is the most insulting, you ask? Is it the title track, whose blandly suburban mall keyboards accompany a rant against information overload and the media-literate? Is it “Chemistry,” a rhythmically wooden reggae-inflected blues-rocker that lists cliched pickup lines as if revealing something deep and horrifying about gender relations? I vote for “Signs of Life,” a lament for the supposedly repetitious, joyless ritual that is party culture: “Spend your life waiting in line/you find it hard to define/but you do it every time/then you do it again/looking for signs of life/looking for signs every night/but there’s no signs of life/so we do it again.”

Ah — the futility of hedonism! The misery of affluence! Cool kids who pretend to have fun because everyone else does, but secretly feel empty inside! Where have we heard this before? From Halsey, from Lorde, from Frank Ocean, from Drake, from the Weeknd, from the fucking Chainsmokers. With Everything Now, Arcade Fire joins the vast litany of artists who’ve taken it upon themselves to explain Why Modern Kids Suffer and Why Millennials are Ruining Society. That they exempt themselves from their social critique, unlike the aforementioned artists, proves only that exclusionary indie elitism is alive and well. Listening to Neon Bible in the wake of Everything Now perturbs; one wonders if their urge to hide under the covers from the “ocean of violence” outside really targeted Bush, or if the chaotic entanglements of modern life just offended their regressive notions of purity. Their earlier albums surged with positive energy, while Everything Now is the bad album that previous good albums made inevitable. A collapse from idealism into cynicism should surprise nobody. Those who believe in false if rousing ideals can inspire, as Arcade Fire has in the past, and that they’ve gradually become bitter over 13 years after being disappointed in such ideals doesn’t mean they no longer believe in them. On the contrary, they hate the world for not living up to how it should be. Idealism, cynicism, these are not opposites — it just depends on whether the sentimental idiot in question is in a good or bad mood.

Tellingly, their famously energetic live show transcends the negativity of the record. Playing to a festival crowd at Lollapalooza this year, they jumped around, traded instruments, conjured uplift from despair, and generally made joyous, triumphant, cathartic noise. Behold — a welcome sign that they still believe in humanity. I hope their next album, also, yields such evidence.

Everything Now (2017) and Reflektor (2015) are available from Amazon and other online retailers.

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