On “Infinite Content,” a song on Arcade Fire’s fifth album, frontman Win Butler yelps, “Infinite content! Infinite content! We’re infinitely content!” The internet’s infinite content, you see, doesn’t make us infinitely content. In fact, it often leaves us itchy and dissatisfied. You may have noticed this. Butler is so keen to get this insight across that he repeats the pun six times. When the garage-rocker is immediately reprised as a sugary country ballad, he delivers it twice more.
The Montreal band didn’t get this far by being subtle. Butler and his wife, Régine Chassagne, are two town criers at the head of a marching band, cajoling listeners into joining a party fraught with anxiety: Come together or else. Their first two albums had some of the moral stridency and elevating urgency of early U2. Indeed, the older band used Arcade Fire’s five-alarm anthem “Wake Up” as intro music on their 2005–06 tour. If Everything Now, Arcade Fire’s newest album, owes anything to U2, though, it’s to “Discothèque” from 1997’s misguided Pop album, a song that encased a sermon about consumerism in glitzy dance-rock and irony with all the delicacy of a Vegas billboard. It’s hard to move your hips, wag your finger, and raise an eyebrow all at the same time.
A quarter-century ago, serious rock artists like Bruce Springsteen felt obligated to write at least one song about how TV was making us stupid (in the Boss’s case, it was “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On)”). Their modern equivalents fret about the effect of the internet on our brains. Arcade Fire have been here before, on 2013’s Reflektor (“We fell in love when I was nineteen/And I was staring at a screen”), and so have many other artists, including St. Vincent and Father John Misty. As the slew of think-pieces that attended the twentieth anniversary of Radiohead’s OK Computer reminded us, ambivalence about technology has been one of rock’s chewiest topics since Mark Zuckerberg was in middle school. The promotional campaign for the single “Creature Comfort,” featuring Arcade Fire–branded breakfast cereal, notes that pop music is a consumer product, just like the Who did half a century ago. Arcade Fire stretched the gag by teasing the album via tweets by phony Russian spambots, setting up a Facebook page for Everything Now Corp., and thronging the “Creature Comfort” teaser video with pop-up ads for fake brands. Overstimulation is the game. “There’s sort of an everything-nowness to life,” Butler told the BBC’s Radio 1. “I feel like almost every event and everything that happens surrounds you on all sides.”
Everything Now takes the approach of embodying the phenomenon it critiques. There’s a lot happening here, and that includes, regrettably, Butler’s version of rapping. “Signs of Life,” the scene of the crime, is the modern equivalent of a boomer rock band adjourning to Compass Point, Nassau, in 1983 to capture the pulse of clubland and overshooting, with disco handclaps and strained whoops. The collision of digital ska and Joan Jett riffs on “Chemistry” is the kind of spectacular misjudgment that demands the appointment of a special counsel. Who knew about this song, and when did they know it?
The fundamental problem with the direction that Arcade Fire began taking on Reflektor is that Butler is not a natural dancefloor presence. His voice has a puritanical stiffness that implies that fun is suspect. It’s significant that Arcade Fire’s first — and still best — flirtation with dance music, 2010’s “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains),” was sung by Chassagne in the first person. Butler favors the disapproving Dylanesque you. “Every inch of space in your head is filled up with the things that you read,” he sings accusingly on the title track. “And every film that you’ve ever seen fills the spaces up in your dreams.” He sounds like a man about to confiscate your iPhone and delete your Netflix account.
That song succeeds anyway because it carves out space in the groove to counteract the theme of nauseating fullness. Producers Steve Mackey (Pulp) and Thomas Bangalter (Daft Punk) approximate the generous, supple discopop of Abba and early-Eighties sophisticates ABC, and even a needling flute line can’t prick its balloon. But there are times when excellent music simply cannot survive Butler’s lyrics. “Creature Comfort” may have terrific co-production and coldwave synths from Portishead’s Geoff Barrow on its side, but Butler’s self-regarding lines about the power of his band’s music to save the lonely and suicidal from the influence of nasty, shallow celebrities sour the deal. A rock star shouting, “God, make me famous/If you can’t just make it painless” in the persona of a desperate teenager is one of life’s unsalvageably bad ideas.
Paradoxically, Everything Now would be less frustrating if it continued to blunder, culminating in a long tropical-house jam about the unbearable sadness of Instagram. But, as with U2’s Pop, there is grace and warmth lurking behind the postmodernism-for-dummies folderol. In the final stretch, it is as if the band has forgotten all about spambots and cereal boxes and started to make an entirely different record. “Electric Blue” ’s yearning, Chassagne-fronted synthpop and “Good God Damn” ’s husky boneyard funk let some air in. “Put Your Money on Me” returns to Abba, but the graver, more mature work, with a hypnotic pledge of undying love “above the chloroform sky/Clouds made of Ambien.” Best of all, “We Don’t Deserve Love” recalls the tormented electronic blues of Springsteen’s “Tunnel of Love” as it glides, glittering, through the darkness. Butler’s and Chassagne’s voices have never sounded this good together. How a song this elegant and moving ended up on the same record as “Chemistry” we may never know.
Arcade Fire have molded a big concept to their advantage in the past, on 2010’s Grammy-winning The Suburbs. Here, though, the craving to make a statement about How We Live Now ties them in knots. The farther they travel away from that impulse, the closer they get to a genuinely new direction. Everything Now is an album about excess and din that only really connects when it calms down.