Arcade Fire's fifth studio album has lofty ambitions, somewhere along the way though it definitely hits a glass ceiling. It's a record that's purpose-built for the digital age starting and finishing in exactly the same place. 'Everything Now (Continued)' bookends proceedings with the album looping seamlessly as the song is bisected by the constraints of the physical album format, but is set free by the infinite looping available on digital devices. It's a project that is an audio representation of the mathematical lemniscate symbol for infinity: its start and finish hinge on the same song, the album loops and mirrors itself with two very distinct renditions of 'Infinite Content' marking the midway point of the record, and crucially even the album artwork is presented in two complimentary designs. You get the feeling that Arcade Fire's aiming for a grand statement, something with enough self-importance to perhaps establish itself as an Ok Computer for the 21st century. Ultimately Everything Now is fundamentally too clever for it's own good, there's too much emphasis on the concept at the expense of the songs themselves.
Perhaps the hurdle that Everything Now fails to overcome is the irony that lies at its core. There's a through-line of acid tongued social commentary aimed at the instant gratification of the digital age, but these songs are presented in a package that seemingly glorifies that modern predisposition. If this was an album filled with dark humour that would be an understandable choice, but it's all delivered in such a straight-faced fashion that it fails to be anywhere near as subversive as it wants to be. Arcade Fire had previously demonstrated a masterful grasp of these kinds of themes, especially with 2010's The Suburbs, here it's like the band is thematically treading water.
Admittedly Win Butler does cover a lot of ground during the 47-minute perpetual loop of Everything Now. There's financial meltdown with 'Everything Now (Continued)' when he tells us "I'm in the black again" and later in the record the mirror image "I'm in the red again", unsurprisingly the theme is also explored with 'Put Your Money On Me'. There's regular references to religion, it's signalled with the gospel choir found on the title track and re-enforced on 'Good God Damn' and 'We Don't Deserve Love' where Butler implores Mary to "roll away the stone". There's also drugs ('Chemistry') and suicide ('Creature Comfort'), in fact Butler seems to emphasise how serious he is throughout the record by relentlessly focussing on mortality and death as a metaphor when he's not deconstructing our obsession with materialistic ephemera. Butler is telling us to "stop pretending you've got everything now", but that message gets lost in the patchwork narrative he builds through the course of the record.
Musically Everything Now is a little more satisfying. As you'd imagine, and as dictated by the concept, it sounds like a digital music player put on all song shuffle, that's no bad thing. The production contributions of the likes of Daft Punk's Thomas Bangalter and Portishead's Geoff Barrow add a sense of eclecticism only found on albums like The Clash's Sandinista. There's Electronica and Pop to be found on 'Creature Comfort' and amidst the seemingly 8-bit computer game inspired blips of 'Put Your Money On Me'. There's also room for Arcade Fire's quirky live instrumentation, chiefly with the street sirens, strings, and saxophones of 'Signs Of Life' and with the Ska to be found on 'Chemistry'. While the crunchy guitars take a real back seat here, only coming to the fore on the first interpretation of 'Infinite Content' (the accompanying rendition is a laid-back Country version), it's the successful musical experimentation that is Everything Now's true selling point.
As an ambitious piece of social commentary and cautionary tale about the digital age, Everything Now is a deeply flawed record in my opinion. Butler may be of the view that "silicon valley has melted back into silicon" ('Put Your Money On Me'), but his argument is less than convincing. It's an album that is trying so hard to live up to some perceived greatness that it forgets to have fun while doing it. The closest Everything Now comes to something transcendent is with some of the musical shifts it takes, but that's simply not enough to elevate it beyond mediocrity when there are so many missed opportunities elsewhere.
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