Arcade Fire burns out
Imagine this scene for a minute:
You’re sitting on the couch of a nice Brooklyn apartment, preferably in Williamsburg. There’s a speaker in the corner attached to a record player. It’s shiny and large and resembles a children’s toy. You’ve never heard of the company which produced the speaker but the man sitting across from you will certainly assure you that, while you probably haven’t heard of it, it’s top of the line. Then he’ll make fun of people who say things like, “You probably haven’t heard of it,” because he’s aware that it’s easy to make fun of those kinds of people, and in acknowledging and getting in front of the stereotype he believes he has precluded himself from it, in a way.
Inevitably, after enough drinks, maybe two or three, he’ll make a vague reference to you about the ills of capitalism, and maybe religion too. “It’s the opioid of the masses,” but he can’t remember whether the quote refers to capitalism or religion. Doesn’t matter. It fits for both. But then, you have to wonder, how does he afford this apartment, and that speaker system?
You ask him, and he snaps back that you’re missing the point. That you didn’t hear what he actually had to say.
This is about the situational equivalent of listening to Everything Now, the fifth studio album by Canadian band Arcade Fire.
It’s not that the social and economic critiques are illegitimate; it’s that they’re vague, messy and reach only the thinnest level of self-awareness. It’s not that we should feel badly listening to the band because they’ve made it and they’re wealthy; it’s that we should question why these factors haven’t led to nuanced soul searching and genuine concern about contributing to the very problems which they haughtily deride. Everything Now is the band at their least aware, least sonically interesting and most violently grating yet.
Ironically perhaps, we can track where things went wrong for the band right back to their marketing strategies. Much was made about the enormous campaign for their last proper release, Reflektor, which landed in 2013. Buildings in Brooklyn were covered in huge, cryptic posters which advertised the upcoming album, and the band performed some secretive shows (publicized enough, though, so that the very existence of the shows was in itself a form of marketing). It was excessive, and it worked.
Already there was an odd contradiction here: aggressive, social media-based marketing for an album that was largely critical of social media and marketing. The band mostly got away with it because the album still felt like a legitimate effort. Laborious, actually. The themes stretched over two discs, centering around the idea of the “reflexive age,” taken from a 19th century Søren Kirkegaard essay, while applying it to modern day social issues. “We Exist,” for example, took on the parental and societal rejection that a gay person might deal with. Stand out “Here Comes the Night Time” discusses missionaries in Haiti over a sharp disco-rock beat laden with clever fake-outs. They took ambitious risks, pushing the album to 85 minutes. It fell short at times, and pushed too long at others, but their energy was still undeniably present. And though the marketing was over the top, it spoke to the scope that the album intended. It was huge, and so were the band’s ideas.
Leading up to Everything Now, Arcade Fire launched a parody Twitter account (@EverythingNowCo) which mainly retweets cringe-inducing posts by corporate accounts like Olive Garden, as well as fan images of their own marketing efforts on Target store TVs and grimy subway cars. They also wrote a “Premature Premature Evaluation” of their own album, poking fun at Stereogum’s slightly sensationalized article “Remember When Arcade Fire Were Good?” which criticized their singles, particularly “Everything Now.” In their own Premature Premature Evaluation, they call themselves, among others things, “a goofier, less cool, extremely self-serious, and less danceable Daft Punk,” referencing the influence of Thomas Bangalter on this record, later estimating that Everything Now will likely fall “probably somewhere between number 8 and number 14” on the year-end lists.
Apparently Arcade Fire want us to know that they get it. By infusing intense irony and metacritiques into their marketing campaign they assume we’ll distance them in our minds from the forces they poke fun at.
That’s not the case.
It reminds me of a problem laid out in David Foster Wallace’s essay “e unibus pluram,” referring to a movement of irony heavy “post-postmodernist” fiction writers who attempt to give social criticism by entirely inhabiting the world in which they criticize. The result, Wallace explains, is “Instead, it most often degenerates into a kind of jeery, surfacy look ‘behind the scenes’ of the very televisual front people already jeer at, and can get behind the scenes of via Entertainment Tonight and Remote Control.” I think the same applies with Arcade Fire’s marketing strategy.
Essentially, we already see and understand the absurdity of these corporate accounts attempting to seem “hip” by being on Twitter. When we see Olive Garden appropriate a Brandon Warrell meme about blow jobs, we don’t need Arcade Fire’s fake Twitter account to show us how odd it is. We already get it. It’s not cutting edge social commentary for the band to say, “Look! Corporations! Money!” And it’s certainly not cutting edge for that commentary to come in the form of a retweet. There is behind that veil of irony no legitimate, serious critique here, and the only effect that their pseudo-meta marketing produces is that more attention is placed on their hypocrisy as they continue to employ rather typical and unexciting marketing techniques. No matter how much they attempt to make fun of it and separate themselves, they are deeply engrained in that corporate system which they want you to believe they’re so against.
Their new album, like their marketing for it, is neither clever nor exciting. It too is surface-level at best. At worst, it’s poorly constructed unintentional self-parody.
Let’s take the title track and “Infinite Content.” The former is a great example of classic stadium rock manufactured to be easy to repeat and not too difficult to understand. The chorus — “I need it! / Everything Now! / I want it! / Everything Now! / I can’t live without! / Everything Now!” — lacking subtlety, is supposed to speak to the apparent now now now attitude of the internet era. That’s matched with the message of “Infinite Content” (both versions) — “Infinite content / We’re infinitely content.” That phrase is repeated 20 times. It sounds a bit like a politician repeating an empty catchphrase to a crowd full of cheers.
To be clear, Arcade Fire have never been the most nuanced lyricists. They make their societal gripes obvious and known quickly. But they were never so lazy as these tracks feel. The songwriting does little to no work on most of these tracks. They half-heartedly wave their fingers in discontent towards a general direction and scoff.
And they’re not even trying to be original. “Signs of Life” sounds like the C-side to “Modern Man” off The Suburbs, as if a millennial bashing elderly man misinterpreted the message and wrote a shitty fan fic of it in his plastic chair right after he kicked some skateboarding hooligans off his lawn. “Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday / Friday, Saturday, sometimes Sunday / Love is hard, sex is easy” — you can’t make this kind of boring self-righteous songwriting up.
We might even forgive bad songwriting if there’s enough enthusiasm or musicality. Neither appears on this album. On nearly every track they sound exhausted, droopy eyed. On “Peter Pan” the beat lumbers to follow along with Win Butler’s mopey non-tale about love, delivered in a tone that makes no hint at all towards love. In fact, the entire stretch of tracks beginning at “Peter Pan” and ending at “Good God Damn” is a collection of the most uninspired work Arcade Fire have ever made. “Chemistry” is practically unlistenable, and reminds me of those terrible songs on teen TV shows when the whole gang goes to see the “musically talented” one at a local battle of the bands.
But Everything Now is especially difficult because there are moments which sketch out designs that hint at their greatness. “Put Your Money on Me” is a desperate track that finds hope in the face of apocalypse. It’s the first that shows how the disco-influence that inspired the album, so often distracting or strangely out of tune, can work wonderfully. It’s the best on the album. If the song was tackled with the ambition of songs like “Afterlife” or “Neighborhood #3,” it would be a triumph. The same is true with “Creature Comfort,” the other salvageable track on this album. It’s the first track to bring up the theme of suicide, which is mentioned in passing throughout the rest of the record. If it wasn’t for the hint of sincerity on this track, the other mentions of suicide would be outright offensive given how little Butler seems to actually care.
For a major rock band that bills itself as socially conscious in 2017 to be so void of serious, impassioned social criticism feels absurd. There is too much going on right now for a cop out of this sort. It’s one of the most glaring, blatant examples of some of the broader failures of indie rock as a political genre, as rap has long since eclipsed and surpassed it in terms of powerful, vocal statements which succeed on the commercial market. Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN., Jay Z’s 4:44 and Vince Staples Big Fish Theory are all albums released this year which are leagues more conscious than this. Each touches on complex issues of rigged economics, the political climate, racism and culture at large. There’s passion in their work.
The only major indie rock album to come close recently was Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool, released last year — “Burn the Witch,” the opener on that album, is a forceful, immediate track about the dangers of groupthink and authoritarianism.
It’s part of a larger problem in the indie rock world, in which white male dominated bands are commercially successful and often falsely hailed as revolutionary while the bands doing the real protest work, many of whom are female fronted, LGBT and non-white, are ignored or even shamed. Check out Mitski, Frankie Cosmos and Courtney Barnett. Listen to gay artist Perfume Genius’s new protest album No Shape. But don’t hail Arcade Fire for saying nothing while so many bands are saying so much.