Updated: Friday, August 4, 2017, 7:58 AM
Arcade Fire has made an important discovery.
It’s revealed on Everything Now (Columbia ** 1/2), the new album by the acclaimed Canadian band, fronted by the husband-and-wife team of Win Butler and Régine Chassagne, that — if you’ve been reading their reviews — seems to have gone from being the best band in the world to one of the worst.
The word content, it seems, not only can be pronounced two ways, it also can mean two different things.
In digital media terms, content is stuff ready-made to click on and consume, like a song, a video, or a real news story like the Arcade Fire review you’re reading now. Or even a fake one, like the make-pretend assessment of Everything Now the band itself wrote on the not-real music blog Stereoyum, in response to real music blog Stereogum’s piece, “Remember When Arcade Fire Were Good?”
The conclusion of the band’s review was that Everything Now “will eventually be evaluated as one of the best of the year.” (Not likely.)
But content is not only a noun: It’s also an adjective which means “to be satisfied.” And the cruel irony, the band that won an album of the year Grammy in 2011 is here to tell us, is that instant access to all the content the world has ever known — to everything, now — is not likely to make our hearts content.
That’s the pound-it-over-your-head Captain Obvious idea behind both “Infinite Content” and “Infinite_Content,” the back-to-back tracks — one punky, one country — at the core of Everything Now, an album that also contains three different iterations of its title song.
“Infinite Content,” which is also the name of the tour that will bring the band to the Wells Fargo Center in South Philadelphia on Sept. 17, is a prime example of the trouble with Everything Now, and why consensus has splintered on the band that had been darlings of the media ever since its debut album, Funeral, garnered a near-perfect 9.7 grade from taste-making music site Pitchfork in 2004.
From the beginning, Arcade Fire was hailed for its epic, earnest sound. It was an indie band with the correct cosigns — David Bowie was an early supporter — that came on strong as it celebrated the communal catharsis of rock and roll without ever using irony as crutch. The musicians weren’t afraid to sound like they meant it, man.
That heroic quality built the band a large audience, and engendered plenty of goodwill. When it beat out Eminem and Lady Gaga, among others, for the Grammy for The Suburbs in 2011, it was seen as a major upset, but also a victory for the good guys, a sign that there was room at the top for a noncorporate underdog.
Since then, the band has grown painfully self-conscious as it has strained to make big statements worthy of an important act, while also attempting to subvert its self-serious image by making music that’s more intentionally aimed at the dance floor. Call it the Achtung, Baby strategy: A band attempts to escape its own self-importance by making music that embraces electronic rather than “authentic” music-making, commenting on the overstimulating culture at large while it’s at it.
It worked brilliantly for U2 back in 1991, but not so much for Arcade Fire. Its process began with the too-long 2013 double album Reflektor — with its disco and Haitian music excursions, and production assistance from LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy — and has been more awkward.
It continues on Everything Now. In the digital marketplace, Butler sings on the new album’s title song, “Every song I’ve ever heard is playing at the same time, it’s absurd.” He can’t help but tell us that too much of everything is bad for us: “We turn up the speakers till they break, ‘cause every time you smile it’s a fake.”
Sometimes, the approach works fairly well. “Everything Now,” the song, is effective enough as an affectionate homage to ABBA that it doesn’t come off as a scolding lecture.
But there are other stretches on the album that are painful to struggle through. There’s Butler’s spoken-sung vocalizing — he has insisted that he’s innocent of accusations of “rapping” — on the direly pessimistic “Signs of Life.” “Creature Comfort” contains a touching lyric about a fan tempted by suicide — and perhaps, saved by the power of music — but musically, it’s sluggish. And “Chemistry” is a real howler of a listless reggae exercise that contains not an iota of the romantic magic it celebrates.
All of this has caused the pendulum of critical approval to swing back and smack Arcade Fire in the face. Some reviews, such as in Rolling Stone, have been positive, but others have been savage. Pitchfork downgraded the band to a damning 5.6, and the British music site the Quietus was blunt, accusing the band of “anodyne comfortableness and self-congratulation” and concluding “this album is what none of us needs right now.”
Which leads to the question: Is Everything Now really that terrible? Has Arcade Fire gone from being the best band in the world to the worst?
Not exactly. It is, however, the nature of social media groupthink mood swings. Was Arcade Fire ever as unquestionably great as that 9.7 rating implied? No, but it was a fresh, exciting new thing that initially took the world by storm at a time when the web was just starting to spread buzz at the accelerated pace we’re now used to. Another act that that was the great beneficiary of those early days of music blogs was the Philly band Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, which went from unknown to everybody talking about it thanks in part to a 9.0. Pitchfork review of its 2004 self titled debut.
One reason for the severity of the Everything Now reviews — besides annoying marketing tactics like the band’s seeming to announce a strict dress code / no phones policy for a show in Brooklyn before following up with a “wear whatever you want” announcement after an outcry — is that the album is poorly sequenced.
With the exception of the title track, all of the worst songs are over by the middle of the album. As I tried to decide whether Everything Now was worthy of being despised or just kind of meh, I found my opinion softening in the later stages.
“Electric Blue,” Chassagne’s one vocal showcase, is a pleasant, lightweight funk number that recallse Tom Tom Club. “Put Your Money on Me” doesn’t exactly burn up the dance floor, but there’s nothing loathsome about its plea for a steadfast commitment.
Butler can’t stop himself from tossing off an aside that condescends to popular culture on the penultimate “We Don’t Deserve Love.”
“A terrible song on the radio,” he sings. “Baby, what else is new?” But the song he’s singing it in is anything but terrible. In fact, it’s a lovely, haunting love ballad that shows what he and his band are still capable of when not getting in their own way trying to make a Big Statement.
Read full story: Wait, is Arcade Fire terrible now?