Now would be a good time to clarify the difference between No Sense of Humor and Really Bizarre Sense of Humor, as we grapple, once more, with Arcade Fire’s really bizarre sense of humor.
The Quebec arena-rock band’s fifth album, Everything Now, is finally out Friday, after a baffling and wearying publicity blitz of fake reviews (intentional), damaging music-blog controversies (unintentional), and general prankster confusion (unclear). They’re fooling around, they’re disrupting, they’re lampooning the very hype machine that brought them both reverence and ridicule. This is all supposed to be funny. It’s not unfunny, exactly. But is it possible to not be in on your own joke?
This, for example, is funny. Come on. Pretending to release your own version of Rock Band, complete with accordion and keytar, is funny. Rock Band and Guitar Hero peaked almost 10 years ago, but still.
Same deal with planting a fake Billboard story that you’re suing for copyright control of the “Millennial Whoop,” that titanic burst of whoa-oh-whoa-ohs that made Arcade Fire’s 2004 debut album, Funeral, feel so epochal to begin with. Touting your running Hot Latin Playlist on Spotify and stacking it with full non-Latin albums (Blonde on Blonde, Mingus Ah Um, Midnight Marauders) is a little less whimsical. Using both your Twitter account and Everything Now’s track list to hammer at the idea of “Infinite Content” and smartphone-borne malaise induces some eye rolls, but pedantic social commentary is a crucial aspect of the arena-rock experience.
A less-crucial aspect of the arena-rock experience is writing an entire fake Stereogum “Premature Evaluation” review of your new album a week before release, a very “Eminem at the end of 8 Mile” preemptive strike that projects more self-doubt than self-awareness. Stereogum, of course, being a major online rock-critic hub starting in the mid-’00s, was part of the massive wave of enthusiasm that helped propel the band to arenas in the first place. But the site has turned on the band a bit lately, and now comes the band’s bizarre satirical response:
This queasy mix of saturation and disorientation peaked earlier this week, when Arcade Fire announced a Brooklyn show that touted a “HIP & TRENDY” dress code of the sort that often carries racist overtones. (“PLEASE DO NOT WEAR shorts, large logos, flip flops, tank tops, crop tops, baseball hats, solid white or red clothing.”) The band, which has some experience with dress-code controversies, quickly denied requesting this one, then seized on this fracas for yet another goofy press release and yet another goofy Twitter contest.
They’re firing off distractions like wild. They have good reason. Everything Now is Arcade Fire’s worst album — which is not such a terrible thing, given the overwhelming excellence of Funeral, or 2007’s doomy Neon Bible, or 2010’s sprawling and mournful The Suburbs, or, yes, in its bloated way, even 2013’s disco-flirting Reflektor. I love this band; I love them so much I even love reading dispatches from people who hate or at least distrust them. I love their stiff, awkward, perplexing attempts at expressing a self-deprecating sense of humor that is very genuine and very inscrutable most of the time, which of course only makes it funnier. A slight drop in musical quality isn’t too concerning. A huge surge in Twitter antics is another matter entirely.
In 2004, the notion that Arcade Fire would ever qualify as an arena-rock band was the funniest joke of all. They were orchestral over-emoters releasing their debut album on Merge Records, a beloved indie label that nonetheless doesn’t traffic much in bands that can fill arenas, or bands even willing to admit they’re trying to do that.
But the band’s immediate and dizzying ascent helps explain their uneasy relationship with the “culture-marketing ecosystem.” The Everything Now marketing blitz has a distinct inside-baseball feel, so here’s an inside-baseball proclamation: Pitchfork’s 9.7 rave for Funeral is the single most consequential album review of the past 20 years. It’s a little flowery — “Their search for salvation in the midst of real chaos is ours; their eventual catharsis is part of our continual enlightenment” — but so’s the record itself.
If you loved (or had even heard of) Arcade Fire before that moment, congratulations. But for plenty of critics and Indie-Industrial Complex onlookers, Pitchfork’s 2004 review — a huge rave for a relatively unknown band from the biggest music-journalism website in town — was the zero hour, the closest that era ever got to a “Jon Landau on Bruce Springsteen” moment. I saw rock and roll future, and its name is “200 Canadians yelling at me through bullhorns.”
The band never looked back; they did ever-more-ridiculous things on ever-bigger stages. Dig the loony, atonal squall that kicks in the second David Letterman says their name in 2005:
And dig frontman Win Butler’s wobbly menace as he smashes his guitar on Saturday Night Live in 2007:
And dig his shell-shocked 2011 Album of the Year Grammy acceptance speech for The Suburbs, which begins with, “What the hell?” Which was exactly the right reaction. They beat Lady Gaga, and Eminem, and Lady Antebellum, and Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream.
Arcade Fire managed all this with a nuclear-powered upgrade of the orchestral and bombastic indie-rock sound that roiled the late ’90s and early ’00s, from their fellow Merge Record superstars Neutral Milk Hotel to their fellow Canadians Broken Social Scene. What they added was U2’s stadium-leveling bombast. And U2’s spotty sense of humor. And U2’s penchant for abrupt and uncomfortable new phases.
For these tonal and musical shifts, too, the band often seems to be reacting to their press. In 2007, then–New Yorker music critic Sasha Frere-Jones published an article with the title “A Paler Shade of White,” questioning the cultural insularity of recent indie rock as a whole, and of one band in particular:
Arcade Fire member Will Butler (Win’s brother) swiftly (and politely) responded, even offering Frere-Jones “an MP3 with parts of our songs that I think steal quite blatantly from black people’s music from all over the globe.” (He’s, uh, joking, but he did have a point that the band has always been slightly more adventurous and omnivorous than its detractors alleged, and anyway, soon Vampire Weekend would come along and give everyone something else to argue about.)
The Suburbs wasn’t an enormous shift stylistically, though one of that record’s best songs — “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains),” sung by Win’s wife, multi-instrumentalist Régine Chassagne — was an aching electro-pop jam at least slightly more danceable than usual. But on 2013’s Reflektor, Arcade Fire pivoted to mirror balls, to Talking Heads’ globe-trotting neurosis, to U2’s gaudy Pop-era culture jamming, to LCD Soundsystem’s “teaching the indie kids to dance again” goofball profundity. (LCD boss James Murphy helped produce the album.)
All of which felt like a delayed reaction to the New Yorker piece. Not all of Reflektor worked, but the record proved that Arcade Fire had as-yet-untapped reservoirs of range and nervy ambition and jerky propulsion, with odd promo strategies (including a surreal half-hour special that aired after Saturday Night Live) to match.
Everything Now is a musically streamlined but sociologically fraught version of Reflektor: loose and lithe and almost funky in its own way, but weighed down by the social media hand-wringing. (“Every room in my house is filled with shit I couldn’t live without,” Butler laments on the title track.) Of course, hand-wringing is another crucial part of the Arcade Fire experience — “We’re so connected / But are we even friends?” goes one “Reflektor” groaner — but it’s a question of magnitude. And the promo tactics are overwhelming the thing being promoted.
These songs aren’t terrible, but they’re swimming straight upstream. “Signs of Life” is an odd and winsome mix of Isaac Hayes disco-soul, and Debbie Harry’s rapping on Blondie’s “Rapture” is better than expected, though its opening jab at “Those cool kids / Stuck in the past” might trigger more eye rolls. “Chemistry” mixes loopy reggae verses with a silly glam-rock chorus that channels Billy Squier: also better than it sounds, but only slightly. Chassagne takes the lead on “Electric Blue,” a club-oriented but far more grating spinoff of “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains).” Two different versions of the short but charmless “Infinite Content” — one punkish, one country-ish — show up midway through, back-to-back, sapping the album’s momentum, with no surprise, late-breaking jam like “Sprawl II” or Reflektor’s “Afterlife” to get things moving again.
My concern is that in retrospect, I’ll remember the promo antics first, and this song second, and pretty much nothing else third.
“Creature Comfort” is the only song on Everything Now that qualifies as truly great, that is worthy of the canon it’s joining. It’s high-drama New Wave with sonic delusions of arena-rock grandeur that Arcade Fire long ago proved weren’t delusions at all. The lyrics, delivered mostly by Win in his bracing fidget-spinner bellow, are about as good as Everything Now gets in terms of social commentary:
But I confess that my favorite part of this video is the wordless first 45 seconds: the insidious blare of that beat, the strobe lights, the spotlights, the sparkly outfits, and the keytar, with Win pacing around like a coked-up televangelist. Arcade Fire, despite the magnificent awkwardness, have always acted like rock stars: silly haircuts, spangly outfits, elaborate stage props, overblown album concepts, ludicrous promo schemes. (The specific one for “Creature Comfort” involves cereal boxes.) They are Extra on a professional level; they are Too Much in a way that has always proved to be just enough. Everything Now is the first album where the balance feels off, where the exhaustion sets in before the record even drops, where the noise thoroughly defeats the signal. Its content is not, in fact, infinite. But it sure as hell feels like it.