I haven’t listened to the new Arcade Fire album yet. One perk of not being a traditional music critic: There’s no obligation to hear records you dread with every fiber of your being right away. I don’t need to stream anything within its first few hours, or even during its first week of release. It would have seemed unthinkable to hold out this long on a new album from one of my favorite bands five years ago—two months ago, slightly less so.
The thing is, Arcade Fire have seemed hell-bent on alienating long-time fans in the months leading up to Everything Now. If it wasn’t the $109 fidget spinners, the surreally defensive fake album review, the restrictive (but also fake) dress code, or the cereal box scavenger hunt, surely the rudderless early singles were an indication that the Canadian rock group was about to faceplant for the first time in their career. Flirting with dance, funk, or baffling production choices isn’t enough of a reason to ghost your favorite band—it’s when you feel like they’ve betrayed everything that made them so appealing in the first place.
No one ever really came to Arcade Fire for the jokes—it was their cloudbusting catharsis, conviction that would blind you, and this persisting belief that they could make the biggest songs about the biggest emotions by cramming however many people and instruments they could fit onto one stage. They were a feelings-first band, and even when cynicism seeped through the cracks, like on 2007’s incendiary Neon Bible, you believed their outrage was coming from a sincere place. But after their recent attempts at Father John Misty cosplay, I’m not really sure what they stand for.
Butler and Arcade Fire dabbled in some of these stunts for Reflektor’s occasionally exhausting rollout—there was the fake band, the concert dress code, and Butler’s similarly defensive clap-back to a negative review (“’I’m not a dork,’ he says earnestly. ‘I’m a fucking rock star.’”) This time, however, the confused messaging from the press campaign feels inseparable from the music. Based on a scan of the tracklist and the singles I’ve heard, the new music isn’t for alienated kids in the suburbs, people coming to grips with their hometown becoming unrecognizable, or even traditionalists who want everyone to put their phones down—it’s just for them.
Although Arcade Fire and Linkin Park were never really in the same wheelhouse musically or commercially, Everything Now makes me think about the latter band’s abrupt change in direction earlier this year with One More Light. Some of the last headlines about Chester Bennington before his death focused on the interviews when he told fans to “move the fuck on” from Hybrid Theory, and something about punching anyone who called them sellouts “in the fucking mouth.” It sounds extreme, but Bennington let us in on the frustration that every artist who’s endured an out-of-nowhere classic debut might relate to. As we saw with the outpouring of memories and support following Bennington’s death last month, fans still cherish the records they first fell in love with—even if they feel a cool remove toward an artist’s more recent stylistic departures.
It’s possible that Arcade Fire might truly be tired of big-tent indie rock, or just know how hard it’d be to recapture the lightning-in-a-bottle uplift of Funeral. Maybe it’s unfair to expect an artist to repeat themselves, but when you hear great, unfussy late-career records from their contemporaries in the genre—Broken Social Scene, Spoon, and Fleet Foxes—it’s natural to wonder what Arcade Fire would sound like if they were happy doing the same thing they always have. Consistency is inherently linked to being “underappreciated” in indie rock, and Arcade Fire doesn’t seem interested in finding that groove.
I’ll probably listen to Everything Now once the dust settles, and I’m not considering this some grand postmortem on Arcade Fire. After revisiting the last thing I truly loved from the band, their poignant, sensory score from Spike Jonze’s Her, I want to believe there’s an ounce of empathy left in the project. It’s hard to wrestle with the fact that this iteration of the Arcade Fire isn’t for me, or even a majority of the fans who fell in love with them in the first place. They’re just following their current muse, which happens to be huckster commentary on endless content consumption, #fakenews, and our short attention spans. I’ll check back in when they want to be human again.