Arcade Fire have variously been hailed for their instrumentation, arrangements and lyrics over their decade-and-a-half existence, but at the centre of their appeal lies their greatest, and most important strength: songwriting. The band were already using classic songwriting tools (key changes, tempo variation) on their debut record, Funeral, and in the years since, have evolved and added more. At their best, Arcade Fire's songwriting channelled greats like Bruce Springsteen, Velvet Underground, the Cure and Joy Division.
When the band experienced their first negative reviews, for 2013's Reflektor, critics tended to focus on the record's production and the songs' lack of groove and sex appeal, but the real weakness, in hindsight, was the band's seeming disinterest in the songwriting dynamics that made 2010's The Suburbs unforgettable. Too much of Reflektor was too long and too repetitive, with too little payoff. The band eschewed their greatest asset, and the result was predictably weak.
The band's latest, Everything Now, rights those wrongs somewhat. The songs retain something of Reflektor's repetition and shiny production, but the songs are stronger, featuring more back-and-forth between co-vocalists Win Butler and Régine Chassagne and more classic songwriting tropes that make this record feel a little more timeless (and less novel).
Much has been made about the ABBA-esque disco-lite of title track "Everything Now," but there's more to be found throughout the record. The sparkling, synth-y "Electric Blue" is nimble, and features a gorgeous, vocal-led bridge around the two-and-half-minute mark, while throbbing, foreboding highlight "Put Your Money on Me" features a compelling, up-and-down melody that recalls ABBA's own financially-minded single, "Money, Money, Money." The band's focus on pop songwriting, without a forced adherence to one sound, results in a series of successful experiments: the horn-led groove of "Signs of Life" and the poignant shuffle of "We Don't Deserve Love" among them.
Everything Now suffers, though, when the band prioritize conceptual musing over songwriting. Though each only clocks in at about 1:40, the thrashy "Infinite Content" and its countrified sister track, "Infinite_Content," combine for the album's worst three minutes, as the band juxtapose the concept of "infinite content" with being "infinitely content" in a lyrical turn that probably seemed way more clever when they first wrote it. That slight sag in the record's middle is worsened by the reggae-lite of preceding track "Chemistry," a four-minute cheese fest that's only slightly redeemed by a head-nodding crunchy electric guitar in the chorus.
That said, the overarching concept of Everything Now — that the world is suffering from simply too much, whether that's privilege, information, oppression or otherwise — provides a large enough umbrella that the album mostly coheres. It helps that it's bookended by the glitchy "Everything_Now (continued)" and "Everything Now (continued)," the latter of which scrolls through a few of the album's musical themes before landing on final lyric, "we'll make it home again."
On Everything Now, Arcade Fire balance their conceptual and musical sides better than on Reflektor, managing to rein in their indulgences (including runtime; EN is the band's most concise offering since 2007's Neon Bible) for a relatively tight 13-song tracklist that both evokes the past and feels of the moment. They're not back at their best, but on Everything Now, Arcade Fire once again sound something like the world-beaters they were on The Suburbs without forgoing the acidity, swagger and scope of Reflektor.
Dig into Arcade Fire's back catalogue via Umusic. (Columbia)