Some off-the-cuff first impressions of Arcade Fire’s new album: Everything Now.

For the band’s fans, if you’re interested, you can scroll down to the end to see my quick ranking of the band’s records so far, according to my preference. That way you’ll know whether you want to give my notes on the new album any attention at all.

The cover image for Arcade Fire’s new album was photographed in Death Valley — the lowest point in America. These guys think about everything.

Everything Now: I’m enjoying it.

The comedian Steven Wright once quipped “You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?” He might as well be writing lyrics for Arcade Fire. That one-liner sums up what’s troubling this band of burdened prophets this time around. In one sense, the Internet and trends in globalism have given many people unprecedented access to immeasurable resources. But what good is that if, once we have everything, we don’t know what to do with it?

This becomes clear in the title song, which is so catchy that I’m likely to regret spending so much time with it. Everything Now finds Arcade Fire spinning in a blender of Bee Gees and Abba-style sounds — dancey, poppy, cheesy, heavy on horns and synths and beats. While the colors flash more cheerfully than they have on any previous Arcade Fire record, the lyrics still stagger under the weight of the world. This time, they’re wringing their hands about a world that Radiohead prophesied almost 20 years ago: “In a while / Everything all of the time.

Every inch of sky’s got a star
Every inch of skin’s got a scar
I guess that you’ve got everything now

Every inch of space in your head
Is filled up with the things that you read
I guess you’ve got everything now

And every film that you’ve ever seen
Fills the spaces up in your dreams…

The world they’re bemoaning this time has reached Peak Entertainment, Peak Distraction, Peak Information, Peak Access. And it doesn’t take too much to see how the pace of this frenzy prevents anybody from finding fulfillment.

As the song comes into clearer focus, we find a family at the heart of it, and here the problem is hardly subtle:

Daddy, how come you’re never around?
I miss you, like everything now
Mama, leave the food on the stove
Leave your car in the middle of the road
This happy family with everything now

We turn the speakers up till they break
‘Cause every time you smile it’s a fake!
Stop pretending,
You’ve got everything now.

Yes, the concern about family communication and intimacy still burns at the heart of Arcade Fire’s convictions. In that sense, they maintain a sense of focus and identity: They are like an ambulance charging through town and broadcasting warnings about deadly preoccupations, hoping to save some lives. And it’s hard to know whether these nostalgic dance tracks are meant as satire, or whether there’s a certain self-consciousness at work, a desire to find some fun in the midst of this present apocalypse.

They’re also doubling down on their declarations that people are using and abusing religion out of self-interest. In “Signs of Life,” another soundtrack to a frantic search for meaning, Butler sings, “Love is hard, sex is easy / God in Heaven, could you please me?” You have to feel sorry for the Almighty, who, through the Arcade Fire lenses, is being treated like a vending machine. People want fame or pleasure or, at the very least, a painless existence. (In “Creature Comfort”: “… God, make me famous / If You can’t, just make it painless…“.) As a result, real love and real life remain out of reach; people keep running from puddle to puddle, too lazy to make a journey to the sea that would fulfill their longings.

It’s like they’re making a whole career out of variations on “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”

Picking up that thread, you can find your way through every song as another lament for a way the world has let the singer down… until “Good God Damn.” That’s the song where a suicidal soul begins to wonder (note the importance of punctuation): “Maybe there’s a Good God, damn.” At the suggestion of a benevolent deity, the singer has second thoughts about ending it all.

If these themes and lyrics strike you as feeling a bit like U2-lite, you’re not alone. While this is Arcade Fire’s lightest record musically, it’s also their lightest lyrically. That’s not to say they’re dealing with frivolous themes (although sometimes I wish they would take themselves less seriously). It just means they’re writing more directly, without the densely layered storytelling and poetry of previous work.

So, when it comes to the songs and what they’re about, I don’t get the nasty backlash that seems to be prevailing among Arcade Fire fans. No, it’s not a monumental achievement like Funeral or The Suburbs, but if they aimed that high on every endeavor, they’d burn out — or their fans would. Even U2 and Radiohead have their lighter, more playful, more experimental records.

What I find somewhat disappointing is that there aren’t any standout tracks this time around — at least, not for this listener. I’m fond of “Signs of Life” and “We Don’t Deserve Love” above all, but they don’t land with the musical force of “Neighborhood” or “Windowsill” or “Wake Up” or “Keep the Car Running.” (Nothing beyond the title track of Reflektor sticks with me like those songs, for that matter.)

And that is my ongoing concern about this band. Album by album, I’m not yet convinced that they are capable of great musicianship. They write more substantial lyrics than 99% of the bands currently playing. Their artistic ambitions are admirable. Their collective conscience is wide awake. Their moral compass is true. But it’s hard to sustain, record by record, that sense of rock and roll authority if you don’t have a vocalist, a guitarist, a bassist, a keyboardist, or a drummer who can step into the spotlight and show us that this music is more than just scaffolding for lyrics. Hold the music of Arcade Fire up the brilliance on display on any record by U2 or Radiohead, and it’s clear that they haven’t yet earned the right to swagger.

Still, they don’t have to be U2 or Radiohead. They have their own distinct personality, and in a time when few bands show a capacity for, or even an interest in, taking the torch of Meaningful Rock into the next decade, I’m grateful that Arcade Fire are aiming high. I would rather listen to one of their albums many times, digging deeper as I go, then run in a panic from one pop release to the next in search of the Next Big Thing.

And these are grooves are, well, groovy, baby.

But let me close by reminding you: Back in January, Arcade Fire released a surprise sing: “I Give You Power,” (featuring Mavis Staples). It was a knockout. I wish this album could have accommodated that track, but I’m not sure it would have fit in.

So here’s an idea: How about bringing Mavis into the band? Why not make her the lead singer? That could be a band to rule the world.

A few quick notes on how earlier Arcade Fire records have held up for me:

  1. Funeral. One of the all-time great sophomore records. The self-titled debut didn’t prepare me for the focus, the storytelling, the poetry, the personal passion blazing through each track, and the go-for-broke power of this thing. Strong from beginning to end, and “Wake Up” is an anthem for the ages.
  2. The Suburbs. An enormous record in quality and quantity, one that fulfills the promise that this could become the biggest band in the world. Soaring ambition that captures timeless truth within an epic tracklist of songs about a very specific time and place.
  3. Neon Bible: Half a great record, half a very good one. U2-ish in its prophetic power. “Windowsill” and “Keep the Car Running” are instant classics.
  4. Reflektor. I admire, again, the double-album ambition and the concept-record coherence of the thing. But it sounds a bit like the band’s been reading their most adoring reviews and taking themselves a bit too seriously. (I could be wrong; this is just an impression.) While it’s always interesting, and the title song runs on lyrics that are as strong as anything they’ve done, the rest doesn’t really sink in and stay with me like their best work. Perhaps it’s because, as they’re lacking any strong vocalists, I’m waiting for excellence in the musicianship that lives up to the ambition of the creative vision. It’s just hard to escape the sense that their reach exceeds their grasp here. U2 has done huge, lasting, epic records, but they also routinely pump out irresistibly singable, focused, efficiently crafted songs, and the singular sounds produced by all four members of the band are worth close attention. Arcade Fire’s feeling a bit like an overabundance of “pretty good.”
  5. Arcade Fire. This debut presents us with a band that doesn’t sound like anybody else before or since. It’s a crowded, muddled sound, but take the time to sort through the layers: It has a certain replay value, and it rewards close attention as listeners begin finding their way through.

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