“I love you, always forever, near and far, closer together. Everywhere I will be with you, everything I will do for you.” Donna Lewis
“Keep you waiting, hour after hour. Every night in your lonely tower. Looking down at all the wreckage. When we met you’d never expect this.” Arcade Fire
Arcade Fire released their 5th studio album at the end of July, but I was slow to get around to listening to it. I think that was partially due to the fact that I was HOLDING A GRUDGE against them for not scheduling a concert in my hometown. And also, I guess I didn’t feel a real immediacy to learn their new songs before seeing them live again. No deadline.
I’ve seem them in concert twice before. Once in September 2010 in support of their Grammy winning “The Surburbs” album, and once in August 2014 in support of their ambitious double album “Reflektor”. Both concerts were memorable in different ways. I’ll never forget that special night that I saw them live for the first time, at a time when I maybe knew two of their songs, and the feelings/emotions that whole evening woke in me. That concert was so transformative that it was still resonating in me months later when I decided to start up this silly little blog and was trying to come up with an appropriate name for it. I always liked the idea of looking forward to that next thing, that mountain peak just beyond the ones we can see. It was something that I dreamed about ever since I had my first literal “mountaintop experience” as a child in Jasper National Park, and continued well into the digital age as I adopted the city of Calgary’s slogan as my personal hashtag: #onward. So calling my blog “Mountains Beyond Mountains” after that Arcade Fire song, seemed like a no brainer at the time. I think the name wears well. If that first concert was transformative, the second one was a celebration of sorts. Again, we were on the floor, so we could get as close to the stage as our elbows allowed, but this time we participated in some goofy parlour games led by DJ Dan Deacon before the that really seemed to bring a group of strangers together in a weirdly genuine way. Also, people were encouraged to wear costumes, so my wife had a couple of black t-shirts made up with silver lettering. Mine said “Scream” and hers said “Shout” (in reference to the chorus in “Afterlife”). We also wore mardi gras masks and boas and whatnot. Most people seemed to dress up in some way and get into the spirit of it, even if it was just a little “glitter on the cheeks”, if I may use that term. The band all wore masks and costumes and came through the crowd on their way to the stage. While the first concert felt like the beginning of something new, the second one felt like a confirmation of something great, and I was looking forward to whatever they would produce next.
What they produced next was this summer’s “Everything Now” album, and as I’ve already said, I was slow to give it a try (because I can be petty when the dark mood strikes). But one morning I was making coffee in the kitchen with CBC FM on in the background. It was playing this upbeat, hummable song that I immediately liked. It was like ABBA took the theme music for that PBS kids science show from the 1980s “3-2-1 Contact” and wrote a mash-up with members from Men Without Hats. It was high energy and I just loved how the band spit out the word “EVERYTHING” as a quick dotted eighth rhythm before landing on the next word, “NOW” on the chorus. I waited for the announcer to tell me what the song was, but it was of those situations where they must have announced it before the song started, so I didn’t find out. A couple of days later I was passing through the kitchen again and again that song was on the radio. I started singing along to the end of it and asked my wife if she knew what it was. “You don’t recognize the singer?” she said. “That’s the new Arcade Fire”. DAMN IT. It was so good my mood started to thaw, and I realized that in fact I was acting like the entitled, 21st century demanding consumer that the song was commenting on. I was the guy who wanted “Everything Now”, including a concert in his hometown, and all the songs beamed into my head. A particular lyric stuck with me: “Every song that I’ve ever heard is playing at the same time, it’s absurd.” I WAS THAT GUY. I’ve also felt that way for a while now. The guy who can’t keep up with all the content being produced and released each week, not to mention all the content that has been created since the beginning of human history that I still haven’t got around too. It’s enough to drive you to distraction, but I happy to see that one of my favourite bands was addressing the issue.
Maybe this “not seeing Arcade Fire on this tour” business would be good for my soul. At least, that’s the lie I was telling myself. So, towards the end of summer, I decided to give the album a listen.
I started a blog post on my review around then, but it got lost in the business and busyness of autumn, like so many other sparks of inspiration. But it’s back on the front burner this week because a FRIEND OF THE BLOG (and a friend IRL, [that’s my code for ‘in real life’]) plus another POSSIBLE friend of the blog (I don’t know if she reads it) but NOT a friend IRL (only because I have never met her but I have a good feeling that we would INDEED be friends, if not good friends, or perhaps even DEAR friends (not THAT way, perv) if we ever did meet, just from the little things I have heard about her over the years that I have not known her ARE BOTH GOING TO SEE ARCADE FIRE THIS VERY FRIDAY IN OUR NATION’S SPIRITUAL IF NOT POLITICAL CAPITAL, TORONTO.
I don’t know if the PERSON WHO IS NOT MY FRIEND has been listening to the new album, but I know for a fact that the PERSON WHO IS A FRIEND OF THE BLOG AND A FRIEND IRL has NOT been listening up until today at least, so I consider this a PUBLIC SERVICE to two people, a friend and a NON-FRIEND but potential friend if life worked out differently to review the new album on these very pages today. A little “primer” in case you don’t get around to listen before Friday’s show.
It’s been a while since I’ve done an album review, so I’m a bit rusty. Do I do an overview first? It feels like Arcade Fire is just picking up where they left off with their last album, “Reflektor”. My favourite songs off that album come at the very end, “Afterlife” and “Supersymmetry”. The same thing happened with “The Suburbs”, with MBM bringing up the rear. Let me just check their first two albums and see what’s going on at the end there…be right back…okay: maybe not. Their first one ends with something called “In the Backseat”. I’ve honestly never heard that one, but it sounds a little…..you know. (And the previously one is “Rebellion (Lies)”, which I kind of hate, but it’s their “signature” song and so gets played at every concert. The only part I like about that song is when the play it before the encores, and if you get a good crowd, the crowd with keep singing the “Oh Oh Oh” part over and over until they come back to the stage, in the style of the “woah woah oh ohs” in U2’s “Pride”). For “Neon Bible”, you’ve got “My Body is a Cage “which isn’t exactly their best song off that album either. Here’s another thing I’ve just realized you guys: I don’t think I tend to listen to Arcade Fire as albums, but rather as playlists of the two concerts I’ve attended, and there are several songs that are not known to me, even to this day. Good lord, did you know there was a song called “The Well and the Lighthouse”? I mean, gosh: It actually has a lighthouse in the title. I guess I like what I like, and listen to what I like, and just reinforce that. (And no, I’m not about to start listening to the albums as albums you guys. I’m too set in my ways).
Having said all that, I think “Everything Now” works really well as an album, in the same way that “The Suburbs” does. (And maybe the others too for those of you who prefer their Arcade Fire in album groupings). The band seemed to have fun this summer promoting it too, going so far as created a fake “Everything Now” social media campaign management company that would often get into “fights” with the band and with people in the entertainment world. A good example of this was their appearance on Stephen Colbert, where they provided him with a list of absurd demands, and he happily played along. It was fun following their campaign from afar. In a moment of life imitating art, I was on Amazon the other day, and realized they have a little icon of a globe with the letters EN underneath (I assumed this was an icon indicating that I was on the English site), but the globe icon was the exact same one used by the Everything Now people, and it looked like Arcade Fire had infiltrated Amazon. It was a fun little moment for me, and I showed it to my co-worker who was not as impressed as me. In fact, I think she may have said, “at least you’re onto something different from Star Wars”. But the joke is on her, because I AM STILL DEEPLY INVESTED in Star Wars. In fact, I can’t wait for her to get in to work today so I can show her the new tv spot that has LUKE standing in the cockpit of the FALCON and I realized the last time we saw Luke on the Falcon was at the end of “Empire Strikes Back” when he was rescued from Bespin. He looks so sad standing there, no doubt thinking of his old buddy Han and the sacrifices HE made for the rebellion. I’ll probably see “The Last Jedi” about a dozen times in the theatre, you guys.
How did you guys get me started talking about Star Wars in an Arcade Fire album review? Back to the music: The album plays with the digital reality that if you are listening to this thing on anything other than vinyl, you are probably playing it on repeat, so the first and last tracks sync up into a lovely sonic Mobius strip reflecting the “Infiniteness” of their “Content” (see what I did there?) And based on computer file naming conventions, the first track is called “Everything_Now (continued)” and the last one is “Everything Now (Continued)”, not to be confused with the actual banger that blasted out of my kitchen radio all summer long, “Everything Now”, or indeed the album name, “Everything Now”. They do a similar thing at the midpoint of the album where they have two tracks back to back called Infinite Content and (you guessed it) Infinite_Content. It’s the same song, you guys, but played in two very different styles. The first being loud and upbeat and repetitive and the second being laid back, slow in the style of Iron and Wine, or maybe Calexico, and repetitive. On either side of these “Infinites Content” and in between of these “Everythings Now” you get a solid Arcade Fire album with a few notable standouts.
They start out strong with “Everything Now”, which also is the opener for their fall tour. (Okay, spoilers. Since I knew I wasn’t seeing them live, I watched their Montreal show through several different video clips on Youtube. I’m only human, you guys.) Then you get this great little number called “Signs of Life” which opens with a very Dave Brubeckian drum beat cribbed from his “Unsquare Dance”. That song made it back into the zeitgeist a little bit at the beginning of summer because there’s a scene in that movie “Baby Driver” where Kevin Spacey (BEFORE WE KNEW HE WAS A MONSTER BUT AFTER WE SUSPECTED HE WAS GAY. Those are different things Mr. Spacey but now you’ve got everyone all confused and off kilter and OH GOD here’s a new story about DUSTIN HOFFMAN so I guess we will stop talking about Kevin Spacey now and just let all this disillusionment fill us to the brim until we can’t or won’t trust or admire anyone or maybe instead we will stop and realize that there are tons of good, decent people out there who are also talented actors, directors, authors, artists and we should support those people and that maybe we CAN’T or SHOULDN’T separate the art from the person or the politics anymore and oh god I feel a headache coming on and even though “Hannah and Her Sisters” is one of my favourite movies I’m done with Woody Allen now and for good and I’m probably done with Joss Whedon and I just hope to GOD J.J. Abrams is a decent dude because I really have to see episode IX whenever they film that one oh God I am swamped by the infinite content) is telling the group the plan for the heist and there’s Baby with his Walkman on, blasting Dave Brubeck’s “Unsquare Dance” so that all you can hear is the music in that scene and it’s a montage of Kevin Spacey’s lips moving and writing on a chalk board and pointing and whatnot and at the end of the scene Kevin Spacey’s character suspects that Baby wasn’t listening to the plan and gets him to repeat it and he’s able to repeat it perfectly because it’s a savant or something. (I didn’t really follow a lot of what was going on in that movie, but I think that was my favourite scene). I’m just leaving this link to Unsquare Dance right here. You don’t have to click on it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_yExwkQYcp0
Next up is “Creature Comfort” which could very well be my favourite song on the album. It sounds like a classic AF tune, with a reliable, confident baseline which gives you the feeling this song knows where it’s going from the very first beat. Confident AF, you might even say. It’s a pretty hard take on suicide which I wasn’t expecting but it worked for me. “…Saying GOD, make me famous, and if you can’t then just make it painless. Just make it painless”. And later on, “It’s not painless. She was a friend of mine, a friend of mine.” And at the end, a plea for choosing to live: “Well if you’re not sure better safe than SORRY.” Reader, this song hits me in all the right spots, and it’s got a cool music video too. The band is filmed on stage in black and white, but just from the waist down, so whenever Win sings, he has to bend down to get in the frame, and then he gets out of the way when Regine picks up the “On and On” part during the chorus. It’s simple but I like it.
Not too much to say about “Peter Pan” and “Chemistry” except that they are solid tunes and grew on me after repeated listens. Then you get that weird little “Infinites Content/_Content” interlude and we are onto “Side B” for those hipsters out there who bought the vinyl.
“Electric Blue” sounds like something that Michael Jackson might have left behind for us, and it’s one of the few songs on this album where Regine takes the lead, so you know it is going to be awesome. I have a musical crush on that lady, and I’m not ashamed to admit. Is there anything she can’t do? I’m going to stop talking about Regine now, because this blog post is already at the 2500 word mark and I could easily write another 2500 words about how much I like her, so let’s just move on.
“Good God, Damn” is a somber, reflective song that sounds like it could be from the band’s “Neon Bible” era, but the cool thing about it is that it is written from the perspective of the girl in “Creature Comfort”, the girl who “fills up her bathtub” and puts on the band’s first record as she contemplates killing herself. Her faith in God is the only thing that pulls her back from the brink with the line, “Maybe there’s a good God? Damn.” And the song ends with this lovely sentiment: “Maybe there’s a good God if He made you.” That kind of gives me shivers.
“Put your Money on Me” is an upbeat, poppy number that has even more ABBAesque feel than the lead off “Everything Now”, and is just a lovely plea/love song about putting your trust in someone, despite everything else that’s going on.
And that brings us to the last song, which actually IS my favourite of the album. (“Creature Comfort” comes close, but if I had to pick just one. it would be “We don’t deserve love”).
I love the quiet, introspectiveness this song evokes; its unashamed religious imagery and direct questions to God, wondering if we still deserve love after all that we’ve done to this world, or do we deserve to be abandoned? “Mary, roll away that stone. The men that you love always leave you alone.” I like this line too, “If you can’t see the forest for the trees, then burn it all down. And bring the ashes to me.” and how it goes into that pseudo-chorus that makes me think of the chorus of Donna Lewis’ “I love you, always forever, near and far, closer together. Everywhere I will be with you, everything I will do for you.” In many ways, “Always Forever” is a perfect companion piece to “We don’t deserve Love” and I can’t help wonder if Win and Regine had this song in mind when they wrote, “Keep you waiting, hour after hour. Every night in your lonely tower. Looking down at all the wreckage. When we met you’d never expect this.” And you get those beautiful haunting harmonies from Regine that float over the rest of the song before the end which I can’t help but sing along with every time I hear it. It brought me to a stop the first time I heard it, and it still makes me want to come back again and again. Maybe it’s true that we don’t deserve love, or a concert in our own city, or any of the great things we have in our lives right now. Maybe we can’t see the grace through all the noise, but it’s there. This song reminds us of it.
And before we can think too long or deeply on this, we are swept back into the infinite loop of Everything Now (Continued) and we kick things off again from the top with another run through. The anguish of “Creature Comfort” is given deeper meaning now that we know about “Good God, Damn”‘s perspective, and we now know we get to hear the beauty and heartbreak of “We don’t deserve Love” again and again.
What more could you ask for from an album?
Just one or two more things and then you’re free to go. It wouldn’t be a MBM blog post without a list or ranking of some sort, so how does “Everything Now” fit into the rankings of the rest of the AF albums, I hear you asking?
5. Funeral. Come at me, hipsters! I know this is their debut album, and I’m sure it’s the only good one and after that they sold out, etc etc, but I can’t listen to it. It makes me feel cold and sad, all those songs back to back. I can take some individual songs one by one, like Neighbour #1 (Tunnels) with all that imagery of digging tunnels between kids’ bedrooms and whatnot. I revealed earlier that I don’t like “Rebellion (Lies)” and I also don’t really like “Wake Up”, but for a different reason. I don’t like it because it means their concert is about to come to an end, and that makes me sad too. So I guess if I was in a super good mood and feeling pretty good about myself then maybe I’d put this album on to bring me back to Earth? It hasn’t happened yet. I can relate to the unnamed woman in “Creature Comfort” who chose this album when she was thinking about suicide. That sounds about right.
4. Neon Bible. Okay, I know this album has some great songs, like “No Cars Go”, “Intervention” “Keep the Car Running” and “AntiChrist Television Blues” but it doesn’t really hold together for me, and songs like “Neon Bible” “Black Mirror” and “My Body is a Cage” suck the life out of me. If I can say anything positive about these first two albums, it’s that they show great potential, and the band keeps getting better and better as they go along.
3. Reflektor. Maybe the sprawling double album concept resulted in a lack of focus or theme for most people, but there is some really great stuff here, and I love to make my way through all of the songs on here when I put it on. My daughter used to call “Bring on the Night Time” the “song that goes slow and then goes fast” so I always think of that when I listen to it, and of course I think of that fun night in August 2014 where I was reunited with my musical pals. And “Afterlife” is right up there along with “Mountains Beyond Mountains” for me, with all of its New Orderly goodness.
2. Everything Now. No joke, I’m sticking this one at #2. Maybe because it is still fresh in my ears and I’m giving it a little bit of “recent bias”, but I like what this album has to say about the state of our world, I love the songs, the messages, and am grateful that even though we might not deserve love, we are still getting love in the form of this beautiful album.
1. The Suburbs. No surprise here, right? It was this album with which I first connected to Arcade Fire, and so it will always remain number one in my heart. “2009, 2010. I want to make a record of how I felt then” pretty much sums it up. I think of autumn, of new friends, of the excitement of new beginnings, of bitter nostalgia, of escaping on road trips, unexpected emotions, and the promise and hope of Mountains Beyond Mountains.