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Arcade Fire lightens up—relatively speaking—on the disco-fueled Everything Now

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Photo: Sony Music
Photo: Sony Music
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Arcade Fire

Album: Everything Now
Label: Sony Music

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Arcade Fire’s fifth LP Everything Now opens with its title track, twice. The first version, logged under the name “Everything_Now (Continued),” lasts for just under one woozy minute, and it in no way prepares the listener for what’s to come. When the dirgelike intro gives way to the full five-minute “Everything Now,” the explosion of joyous rhythm, infectious melody, and disco glitz is unexpected—but, boy, is it ever welcome.

The album that follows has a lot more in common with the “fun” take on its opening song than the more plaintive, somber one. While both iterations of “Everything Now” feel like a natural progression from the arty world-beat/dance-fever experiments of 2013’s Reflektor, placing these two tracks back-to-back at the start of Everything Now almost feels like a gesture of reassurance to longtime fans. “Relax,” the band is saying. “This album won’t be as difficult as the last one.”

After winning a surprise Grammy for Album Of The Year for 2010’s The Suburbs, Arcade Fire may have overshot the target a bit with Reflektor. An aggressively esoteric record with heavy Europop and island influences, Reflektor harked back to the days when punk, New Wave, and post-punk bands like The Clash, Talking Heads, and Public Image Ltd put eclectic pieces of contemporary popular music into a shredder and danced in the debris. Yet Arcade Fire’s natural tendencies toward self-serious grandeur meant that even Reflektor’s grooviness felt joyless at times. Although it was a critically acclaimed chart hit—and is fiercely beloved by many of the band’s devotees—four years later, the album remains thorny, and not as easy to embrace as the first three Arcade Fire LPs.

Everything Now is no classic either. When a group takes as much time between releases as Arcade Fire does—and demonstrates such unapologetic ambition—it’s reasonable to expect that its members have been slowly chiseling away at a masterpiece. Instead, Everything Now feels like the simpler record that frontman Win Butler once meant to make with Reflektor, before the project took on a life of its own. There are fewer songs this time out; and on the whole the music is more eclectic and less obviously purposeful. There’s a lot of, “Sure, why not?” to experiments like the consecutive versions of the song “Infinite Content” (one short and punky, the other more sprawling and folky), the minimalist techno-pop of “Electric Blue” (sung by the band’s resident dancing queen, Régine Chassagne), and the slinky funk workout “Good God Damn.”

Too much of Everything Now feels like outtakes and B-sides—though to be fair, even Arcade Fire’s leftovers are packed with ingredients, and pretty substantial ones at that. An impressive amount of effort has clearly been put into the thumping, distorted “Peter Pan,” for example, and the shimmering, room-filling “Put Your Money On Me.” Both take stripped-down compositional ideas, then knock them askew by layering them with unusual instrumentation and the kind of offbeat sound effects that make listeners lean in closely.

The album was produced by longtime Arcade Fire associate Markus Dravs, but just as Reflektor took some input from LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, so, too, does Everything Now boast an all-star team taking turns at the boards: Pulp’s Steve Mackey, Portishead’s Geoff Barrow, and Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter. The lattermost’s influence is felt most strongly, especially on the songs that feel more like throwaways. “Chemistry,” for example, is essentially filler, the kind of tossed-off, childlike chant-along that Prince or The Clash would’ve recorded in one take after watching kids playing jumprope on their way into the studio. Still, Jeremy Gara’s drums and the band’s multiple guitarists hit the beats hard, creating the same kind of pumped-up, celebratory atmosphere that the long version of “Everything Now” promises.

Even at its slightest, or even when the lyrics are more serious, the party vibe of Everything Now carries through, almost uninterrupted. Plus, the record is anchored by four songs as good as any in the Arcade Fire’s repertoire: “Everything Now,” “Signs Of Life,” “We Don’t Deserve Love,” and “Creature Comfort.” All four will bringing audiences to their feet at the band’s spirited live shows for as long as Arcade Fire is a going concern.

“Signs Of Life” continues the title track’s retro dance party adventures, with a song that sounds like a Daft Punk reinterpretation of a ’70s cop show theme, overlaid with a Win Butler “rap” that’s more Debbie Harry and Joe Strummer than Kendrick Lamar. “We Don’t Deserve Love” starts off like one of the softer, dreamier My Bloody Valentine songs, but gets overtaken by a lightly chiming hook. Both are appealingly full and take clearly defined yet not entirely predictable journeys from their first notes to their last.

“Creature Comfort,” though, is the album’s finest achievement. It’s an ambitious, provocative anthem that some will find inspiring and others ridiculous—or even offensive. Once again, the music is exultant, abloom with pulsing synths, hard electro-beats, and a bass-driven hook that could pass for either The Cure or Nine Inch Nails if the song had a darker tone. Far more potentially divisive are the lyrics, delivered by Butler and Chassagne in the sing-song shout that’s been one of their go-to moves since Funeral. “Creature Comfort” is about desperate young people on the brink of suicide because they’re depressed about their body, their dysfunctional families, or their lack of fame. The song’s “it’ll be okay” message borders on the condescending (or perhaps messianic); but when combined with the band’s performance and Barrow and Mackey’s mix, it’s also undeniably effective. It’s an easier song to affirm than to resist.

Arcade Fire has now reached a point that bands like U2 and Coldplay have hit in the past, where popularity and pretension go hand in hand, giving skeptics plenty of fodder for a backlash. But honestly, pop needs these acts that take the big swings, willing to risk having eyes rolled at them. Everything Now could stand to be more disciplined, though its looseness is also a reminder of how Arcade Fire leaped past its indie-rock peers by being an honest-to-goodness hot, swinging combo, feeding off each other and the crowd. Building off those chops and that adulation, Win Butler and his mates developed a sound as ornate, ceremonial, and transcendent as a church service. So we shouldn’t be surprised when they start preaching.