Tag Archives: Arcade Fire

Arcade Fire ‘Everything Now’ – Review

31 Jul

‘Everything Now’ begins with its one, shining, glorious moment of transcendence. The title track, ‘Everything Now’, is a pristinely designed piece of social commentary that manages to duvtail it’s articulate message with a killer four to the floor beat. In four minutes of blissful pop, Win Butler dissects one intrinsic problem with contemporary culture – namely the sense of entitlement and desire to have what you want, when you want it – and makes you want to dance it out. He is empathetic, particularly during the moving third verse, without being condescending. He calls himself out on his complicity during the chorus where he yells ‘I want it! I need it! I can’t live without everything now!’ Meanwhile the music, a post-modern fusion of slick pop, disco and orchestral pomp overseen by Daft Punk’s Tomas Bangalter, Invites the rabid consumption that Butler sings about whilst also embodying its own lyric; ‘every song I’ve ever heard is playing at the same time, it’s absurd.’ It sounds like your favourite Abba, Daft Punk and Arcade fire songs rolled in to one.

If the album was as flawless as its lead track, it would be a modern masterpiece. Realistically though, it couldn’t possibly live up and it doesn’t. In fact that song’s success simply serves to highlight the other songs inadequacies. Which to some may beg the question; how did a band who managed to get ‘Everything Now’ so right on a micro level manage to drop the ball on a macro level? It has everything to do with tone, repetition and overkill; labouring on targets that have already been effectively shot. Where ‘Everything Now’ (the song) is insightful and enlightened, at later points the album is preachy and out of touch. On the single Win Butler sounds emotionally invested and empathetic but elsewhere he is coldly detached and rap-sings in an often patronising tone. The central point being made on the single is an original one but its strung out past breaking point throughout the album, to the extent that it ultimately feels hamfisted and misjudged.

Most of what else Arcade Fire get right arrives immediately after ‘Everything Now’. ‘Signs of Life’ is another laser cut disco number that draws you to the floor with minimal fuss. Then comes the problematic but addictive ‘Creature Comfort’, which has already come in for a critical beating, with one triggered critic calling it callous and malignant. Whilst no reasonable listener would go that far, Butler’s disconnected, ambiguous tone and heavy handed lyrics do rather sour what is actually a glorious carcophony of New Wave nods and New Order-esque flourishes. The song is ostensibly about a young fan’s fight with depression. In the end, despite his unwelcome sanctimoniousness, Butler’s point is a probably valid one – some young people are feeling inadequate, entitled and levels of teen suicide and depression are going up. But this is a big, multifaceted topic, one that surely warrants more careful thought and consideration than Butler seems willing or able to provide in these four minutes. It gives off the impression, rightly or wrongly, that Butler is tactlessly using a story of a young fan’s depression to the band’s advantage; sliding it nonchalantly into a song as a kind of structural device being used to sell a larger argument about society’s ills. The fact he delivers in the lyrics in a retro rap certainly doesn’t help sell his conviction. Perhaps that’s unfair – the song does end with a heart tugging couplet; ‘it’s not painless, she was a friend of mine, we’re not nameless’. He is also involving himself when he sings ‘on and on, we don’t know what we want’ – so he’s not above caring, as some people seem to be reading into it. And while the lyrics may be clumsy, Arcade Fire have never sounded as dynamic or energised.

After ‘Creature Comfort’ things get a lot more patchy. There are some decent songs (‘Peter Pan’ is engaging, ‘Electric Blue’ has a catchy hook, ‘Put your Money on Me’ is a nice low key moment) and a couple of real duds (I think it’s universally agreed the reggae tinged ‘Chemistry’ is awful and ‘Good God Damn’ is as sleepy as Arcade Fire have ever sounded). But even the bad songs have been Immaculately produced so that nothing really feels like a chore. Despite having the same number of tracks as ‘Reflektor’, the album is half an hour shorter which speaks to just how absurdly bloated the songs on ‘Reflektor’ were but also how streamlined ‘Everything Now’ is. An effort has clearly been made to make these songs as accessible as possible.

The album peaks for one last time during ‘We Don’t Deserve Love’, which sounds brilliant and harks back to the more sentimental songs in the band’s back catalogue. Once again though, the song is rather let down by faux-insightful lyrics that vaguely discuss faith, social disconnect and a pervasive numbness. Butler again uses depression and religious imagery as tokenistic, throw away devices – like he’s Bono in a pulpit. If he’d just take a step back he’d see that he doesn’t need the sanctimoniousness to engage his already willing audience. He has the melody, the drama and a great band behind him. He just requires a lighter touch.

Arcade fire have always been a high stakes band and they at least wear ‘Everything Now’s didacticism and moralising more lightly than they did on ‘Suburbs’ and ‘Reflektor’. This time it’s their commitment to concept that is ultimately their biggest undoing – partly because three quarters of the album is made redundant by the perfection of the opening five minutes. They nail it totally on the title track, they should move on. Instead they spend the next 40 minutes repeating, reiterating and labouring the point in increasingly less interesting ways. They also give too much credence to ideas that are far better in theory than in practice – starting and closing the album with two halves of the same song for example, or putting two versions of another song, one punk and one easy listening, at the centre of the record simply to play on the pun ‘infinite content/infinitely content’. The phrase ‘too clever for your own good’ comes to mind.

These concerns are nothing new. In fact Arcade Fire have been mining this same ground and exploring the same themes since the very beginning. The first track on their first album was about escaping from the pressurising demands of society. Track two on that album was about a guy who isolated himself by walking out in to the woods. Arcade Fire have always sought answers to the big questions and risked pomposity in doing so, but perhaps it was easier to root for them on ‘Tunnels’ or ‘Laika’ when they were all about heart on sleeve sincerity, earnest chorus chants and quiet in the library aesthetics. Perhaps on ‘Everything Now’ they’re simply trying to hard to apply new contexts to old ideas; no longer the underdogs but the major label funded kingpins, it simply doesn’t pay off.

Then, frustratingly, there’s serious concerns about the irony that has been creeping in to their shtick for a while now, since the ‘Neon Bible’ days if we’re honest. Mostly it played out here on their exhausting and distracting media rollout for ‘Everything Now’ – a campaign so meta and cynical it made Father John Misty drool in envy. I won’t reflect on that PR disaster here, I think I’ve dragged this out for long enough, but doesn’t it make you long for the days when Arcade Fire had their feet on the ground and eyes to the sky, instead of having their heads up there? You’d probably have to go back to their often overlooked debut e.p to find the last time the band were truly unencumbered by ideas of grandiosity. That record is a wonderful tonic to ‘Everything Now’, as its refreshingly simple, open hearted and optimistic. They were still asking big questions then – and just about every song referenced running away or finding solitude – but they didn’t claim to have the answers. ‘Everything Now’s biggest sin is asking those same questions and answering them for their audience.

6.5/10

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Arcade Fire ‘Reflektor’ – Review

4 Nov

Arcade Fire have always been compelled to write about big subjects. They called their debut album ‘Funeral’, their second one ‘Neon Bible’ and their third ‘The Suburbs.’ Big subjects: Death, religion and modernisation. This is compelling because so few acts seem willing or able to explore this territory. However, it’s given the group an unfair reputation as reserved, dull, intellectual types. You get the idea that on their last record they started to believe this image of themselves. That made ‘The Suburbs’ quite tedious and tiresome, particularly as it hovered in the public consciousness much longer than ‘Funeral’ or ‘Neon Bible.’ It won them a Grammy for album of the year (this award is a huge deal in the states, despite having a hilariously erratic and badly misjudged list of winners) as well as a Brit. It seemed like the more thought-provoking and inspired their lyrics became, the more chugging and weary the music became (a theory that follows on their previous two albums to a much lesser extent). In certain respects ‘The Suburbs’ was a masterpiece, but few would deny that it was a fairly boring success.

It’s therefore easy to forget that when they burst on to the scene (and they really did burst) Arcade Fire were renown for their chaotic, energetic live shows. I used to watch and re-watch their top of the pops performance with absolute glee. I remember one of the group, blindfolded, walking into the audience banging his drum. In those pre-youtube days I’d never seen anything that spontaneous and cool on a mainstream music show. But by the time I actually got to see them live, a few years later, in a crowd, with thousands of other people, from quite a distance, they looked bored and I was bored. So that’s how I came to think of the band. Arcade Fire – a suited up, straight-faced, dull indie rock band. I’d forgotten that listening to them could warrant a physical reaction as much as an intellectual one. I’d forgotten just how urgent ‘Funeral’ was and just how necessary they are capable of being. On ‘Reflektor’ they remind me, in spirit, of the old Arcade Fire.

Watching them on their NBC special recently, I was reminded of that top of the pops performance. Here they were again, doing the unexpected; infiltrating a mainstream TV show, playing by nobody’s rules – not even each others. They were pulling shapes, posing, poking fun at themselves, making serious music but presenting it in a vivid and colourful way. ‘Reflektor’ is their most highly anticipated album to date and yet it feels like the one least burdened with expectations – that is to say, their expectations. James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem produced the album (his distinctive hands prints are all over the title track and ‘Afterlife’ in particular) and they couldn’t have chosen anyone better. Murphey is the master of making Intelligent music that also sounds great on the dancefloor. Here he is basically doing a Brian Eno cira ‘Achtung Baby’ or more recently ‘Mylo Xyloto’ – he is taking a tired ROCK band and, if not quite deconstructing them, then certainly loosening them up.

It’s to Murphey’s credit that despite his successful tinkering, the band never sound like anyone other than Arcade Fire. Which is to partially say they’re still fond of the big subjects. But it’s not just that; the melodies are surprisingly familiar, the song structures seem similar to those found on ‘Funeral’ and the musicians gel together perfectly. This album confirms that Arcade Fire have built their songs on a sturdy and recognisable template. The Beatles never sounded like anyone other than The Beatles, no matter what genres they tackled. Likewise it would seem that Arcade Fire have found a uniuqe and untouchable voice of their own – one that will hold the strain of experimentation.

‘Reflektor’ is essentially about loss. Modern loss. What we’ve lost as a society as well as individuals. ‘We fell in love when I was 19 and I was staring at a screen’ Win sings on the title track, a song about disconnects, red herrings and dead ends. The album’s also about greater loss. Death. It loosely retells the Orpheus myth, which of course deals with false perceptions. So it is here. Truths are half-truths; what seems permanent isn’t necessarily, what is self-evident isn’t really evident at all, and what is hidden is never hidden. ‘Reflektor’ is deep and deeply conflicted. Doubts abound; ‘we’re so connected but are we even friends?’ /  ‘our love is plastic’ / ‘no shit, we’re confused’ / ‘what if the cameras really do take your soul?’ In this paranoid world nothing is as it seems. Even the music feels like smoke and mirrors. Just how seriously are we meant to take the calypso pop of ‘Here comes the Night Time’ or the barbed rhetoric of ‘Normal Person?’ At points it’s as if the band are having a glorious meltdown.

‘Do you like rock n roll?’ Win whispers at the start of one song, ‘because I’m not sure that I do.’ This is another red herring, because despite the dance leanings, ‘Reflektor’ falls victim to the very worst of rock’s excesses. It’s a double album, and it therefore follows that it’s too long, too indulgent and stuffed with filler. The dreary ‘Porno’ and the hideously repetitive ‘Supersymmetry’ stand out as two songs that should have been axed, while most of these tracks would benefit from having their running times shaved. Predictably perhaps, disc one is the real highlight with barely a flaw on show. It somehow manages to be both more ambitious and eclectic than the second disc and is executed much more efficiently. The second disc on the other hand, whilst being shorter and more like traditional Arcade Fire, seems to drag unnecessarily. It’s something the producer should have sorted, but then LCD Soundystem were not immune to long songs either. Despite these shortcomings ‘Reflektor’ remains an admirable and ambitious work.

So Arcade Fire aren’t sure if they like rock n roll anymore, and they present themselves as a band who are happy to flirt with strangeness and indulge in excess and extravigance. Yet ‘Reflektor’ reveals a band who are very much a rock band, whether they like it or not – but one a lot more open and expressive than they used to be. They write songs about being confused in the modern world, about what they have lost and what they fear losing. And yet ‘Reflektor’ reveals a band with a distinctive personality, a band who have lost nothing over the years and gained so much. In the Orpheus myth on which ‘Reflektor’ is based, Orpheus was capable of charming everyone with his unique sounds; there in a nutshell we have Arcade Fire, a band back to their thrilling best.

8/10

Brandon Flowers ‘Crossfire’

14 Jun

I have a soft spot for The Killers, they have been one of the most consistent and hard-working groups of the past decade. With the band taking a short break it seems Brandon can’t stop his creative juices flowing and so he’s coming back with a solo album called ‘flamingo’, due out in September. ‘Crossfire’ is a piece of unashamed pop that picks up where the likes of ‘Human’ and ‘Spaceman’ left off – it got it’s first radio play last night, and you can check it out here. Follow that link and you can also hear the new Arcade Fire single called ‘We Used To Wait’, which is another slice of genius from the Canadians.