Do we need another album about the excess of consumer culture?
Do we need another album about the excess of consumer culture? Arcade Fire takes up that well-worn topic on Everything Now, their first album in four years. Despite an early trio of slinky, energetic tracks, which tap into some of the verve from 2013’s spectacular Reflektor, the bulk of the Canadian indie rockers’ fifth album feels far more stripped back, almost sparse. The album’s lyricism oscillates between clever and clunky but, regardless, feels stuck in arrested development—Win Butler sings about the “cool kids” and other adolescent concerns as if he and his bandmates aren’t pushing 40. Throughout the record, they treat the idea that modern living isn’t all it’s cracked up to be as a far more profound insight than it actually is.
The band makes this theme most explicit on Everything Now’s most infectious song. Over the buzzing synths and propulsive electronic swells on “Creature Comfort,” Butler imparts the common knowledge that “some boys hate their fathers” and “some girls hate their bodies” before going darker with talk of self-harm and suicidal ideation (by someone listening to the band’s first record while in the bathtub, no less). What drives these dark thoughts? An oft-cited symptom of social media and selfie-culture: an all-consuming desire to be famous. The band throws the curveball of treating the Creature Comfort of the song’s title as a product being hawked, which if it can’t bring fame, will at least make life painless— “comfortably numb,” others might say.
Arcade Fire dusts off Reflketor’s mirror ball on the album’s title track, infusing the breezy disco atmospherics with some ABBA-esque whimsy, while reflecting upon how the sensory overload of the Information Age leaves us filled up with what we read, watch and listen to. The band argues that such a glut of input leaves us with nothing new to say, driven by the lone desire to acquire more (“‘Til every room in my house/ Is filled with shit I couldn’t live without”). Though unoriginal, it’s not a terrible conceit for a song, and the track’s inherent catchiness has vaulted it to Arcade Fire’s first ever chart-topping hit. But the band hammers this anti-consumerism theme home so relentlessly that it quickly loses its punch; the repetition of modern compulsions that’s so bemoaned amid the whirling, Talking Heads-inflected beat of “Signs of Life” itself becomes overly repetitious by song’s end.
In fact, some songs pare back the verses to near bare bones, leaving seemingly endless loops of the same few words. “Infinite Content” relies almost completely on reiteration of the song’s title, along with the heavy-handed wordplay that such endless entertainment makes us “infinitely content.” Similarly, “Good God Damn” shifts from chants of those titular curse words to the notion that “Maybe there’s a good God, damn,” an aha moment that, for some reason, returns to that previous image of listening to a record while thinking about death in the bathtub. But when the band branches out with their songwriting, the lyrics too often grow cumbersome, such as the cringeworthy chorus “Be my Wendy/ I’ll be your Peter Pan/ Come on baby, take my hand” on “Peter Pan,” a song that again deals with visions of dying and a wish for immortality.
The irony of a famous band, especially one known for viral social media marketing (and dress codes, apparently), chiding modern technology and consumer culture at large is self-evident. Everything Now’s trite theme is made all the more disappointing by the fact that, to coincide with Trump’s inauguration earlier this year, the band joined forces with guest Mavis Staples and released the politically-charged single “I Give You Power.” Not only did that song fail to make it onto the new record, so did any insightful social commentary.