I said that Dunkirk is the best movie I’ve seen in theaters all year. That is no longer true.
Arcade Fire’s new album Everything Now just came out, and it continues the band’s project of saying a lot of things about a lot of things. Among the things that Everything Now (EN) gets at are: riches, fame, party culture, (fake) love, youth, modern life, technology, God, death. They’ve tackled all these things before, but this time they’ve upped the scale, and so remain the Most Ambitious Band in the world.
If EN had a central theme, it would be excess. The album’s title gets at that, as do the song-titles “Everything_Now (cont.),” “Everything Now” (lead single), “Everything Now (cont.)” (all of which are separate tracks) and the songs “Infinite Content” and “Infinite_Content.” EN gets at excess mostly in the form of monetary wealth. A line from “Creature Comfort” has the narrator say that he’s “born in a diamond mine. / It’s all around [him] but [he] can’t touch it.” “Put Your Money On Me” reflects on money, human relationships, and death.
This is all pretty heavy stuff, but Arcade Fire presents their music fairly in a pretty accessible fashion (it’s definitely easier to listen to than their last album, Reflektor). Even in their musical choices they present excess. EN continues the disco/dance-rock trend that Daft Punk and I guess LCD Soundsystem embody. “Everything Now” (the track) reeks of ABBA. “Signs of Life” reeks of gaudy-colored bell-bottoms (the song does self-awarely use the lyric “those cool kids stuck in the past”). But other tracks are less dancey and more rock. If you lowered the sound fidelity of “Chemistry,” it wouldn’t be out of place on a White Stripes record. In many songs, the bass track would do a funk bassist proud. Arcade Fire takes in a bunch of different influences and by doing so presents excess in musical form, so that you’re getting bombarded by excess on the levels of both music and lyrics (form and content).
Is it all too much? AF is my favorite band on the planet, and if you said you think EN is too much, I’d say “That’s the point.” EN is trying to get us to reflect on what wealth is doing to us. If we can hear “I need / everything now! I can’t live without / everything now! / … ’til every room in my house is filled with s**t I couldn’t live without” and feel some resonance and say “What happened?”–EN has done its job.
“Creature Comfort,” which might be my favorite track from the album, returns to the themes of AF’s first album, Funeral. Its lyrics are some of the most depressive, but also resonant from the album:
Some boys hate themselves
Spend their lives resenting their fathers
Some girls hate their bodies
Stand in the mirror and wait for the feedback
Saying God, make me famous
If you can’t just make it painless
Just make it painless
She dreams about dying all the time
She told me she came so close
Filled up the bathtub and put on our first record
It goes on and on, I don’t know what I want
On and on, I don’t know if I want it
This has thematic connection to the work of David Foster Wallace: feelings of self-loathing, confusion, and disgust permeate his work, as do struggles with death and suicide, which is what this song is largely about. The song, as well as Wallace’s work, poses suicide (or perhaps death in a metaphorical sense) as a potential escape from self-destructive, or at least endlessly pointless, habits of excess (“But you do it every time / Then you do it again” – “Signs of Life”) . Wallace says it isn’t, or that it doesn’t achieve what you think it will. Arcade Fire, both in “Creature Comfort” and the album as a whole, doesn’t seem to give one, but it does acknowledge that struggle.
“Signs of Life” does briefly mention God as a potential option to turn to for fulfillment:
Love is hard, sex is easy
God in Heaven, could you please me?
But the album is by and large parodic and not a vessel of hope. That’s fine, but parody only gets you so far (as D.F.W. acknowledged and struggled with).
TL;DR: Everything Now is a lot, but it’s worth listening to. I like it.
I had a thought earlier today that went like “LCD Soundsystem’s ‘Dance Yrself Clean’ would be my favorite track of the 2010s if Arcade Fire’s ‘Modern Man’ didn’t exist.” And from that I decided to create a top ten of my favorite tracks of the 2010s thus far.
This isn’t a Greatest-Songs-of-the-Decade list, because lists like that aren’t very useful and I haven’t listened to enough music from the decade anyway. These songs are some of my favorite tracks, ones that I both listen to a lot and think have artistic merit. Some of these songs were really hard to select, because a top-ten list is more discarding options than picking them. Many of these songs have sad undercurrents, but then again most, if not all art does. Some have explicit lyrics as well, but they’re worth listening to if you can get past that barrier.
So anyway here they are:
10. Lana Del Rey – Video Games
“Video Games” (2012) I think is Lana del Rey at her best: lush instrumentation, acute lyrics delivered with a captivatingly sad voice. Its lyrics (“It’s you, it’s you, it’s all for you / everything I do”) are at once ridiculously fawnish on the surface and tragic below it. The mood produced by the accompanying music heightens the tragedy. The song suggests a sense of doomed-ness to modern love.
9. J. Cole – She’s Mine Pt. 2
J. Cole’s 4 Your Eyez Only (2016) is fantastic. The character and story he created and developed for the album are some of the most poignant in any genre. “She’s Mine Pt. 2” is my selection for this list because it’s the most lyrically striking track from the album. It’s written from the point of view of a father who loves his daughter, but it gets at American culture in general, incarceration and hyper-consumerism included. The piano-driven track is chill-sounding, but I think it’s meant to induce sadness, or at least a sober attitude.
8. Frank Ocean – Ivy
I’m only putting “Ivy” (2016) on here because it’s a really cute, heartfelt song from Frank that’s also nostalgic of youth (“I ain’t a kid no more / we’ll never be those kids again”).
7. Funeral Suits – All Those Friendly People
Funeral Suits might be the least recognizable artist from this list. They’re an Irish band whose album Lily of the Valley (2012) is one of my favorites. “All Those Friendly People,” which is from Lily, is one of my favorite tracks ever because it manages to be continuously energetic without being heavy. The unrelenting singing during the verse and the insanely catchy riff maintain hype without it ever being too much. And it’s also the only non-medical cultural artifact I know of that uses the word “anaesthetize.”
6. Arctic Monkeys – R U Mine?
(English-major jargon ahead.)
If I were an English professor who had to teach song lyrics, I’d teach the songs of Britrock act Arctic Monkeys. Songwriter and frontman Alex Turner produces songs that aren’t just lyrically good because of the story they tell/picture they paint; they’re good because of the sonic quality of the lyrics themselves, which is to say the words of their songs sound good together. Alex Turner makes incredible use of internal and end rhyme and just assonance in general, sometimes inspired by dialect, like when he rhymes “summat” (a British variant of “something”) with “stomach” in 2006’s “When the Sun Goes Down.” Poet Simon Armitage admires their work, calling Turner “among the most poetic [of songwriters].” Their songs are also driven by some of the best rock riffs produced in any era.
“R U Mine?” (2013) is one of the best examples of all these things. The first verse is a masterpiece of verbal sound:
I’m a puppet on a string
Tracy Island, time-traveling diamond cutter-shaped heartaches
Come to find you fall in some velvet morning
Years too late
She’s a silver lining lone ranger riding
Through an open space
In my mind when she’s not right there beside me
You have the usual suspects like the alliteration in “silver lining lone ranger riding.” But you also have incredible rhyming. “String,” “morning,” and “riding” feel more like internal rhymes than like end rhymes because of how the song sounds (you really have to listen to it if you haven’t yet). “Come to find you fall in some velvet morning” is brilliant not just because of alliteration but also because of how the vowels naturally stress, giving the line a level of rhythmic power usually only found in poetry and rap.
And the riff is both ridiculously sexy and ridiculously well-integrated into the song. I’m linking a live version of the song because it’s stunning that Turner both plays the riff and sings.
5. Kendrick Lamar – u
I can’t find a link to a video, but that’s fine.
“u” comes from Kendrick’s 2015 masterpiece of an album To Pimp a Butterfly. It is hands down the most hard-hitting of tracks on an album that’s about incarceration, racial tensions (both inter- and intra-), greed, sex, whathaveyou.
“u” is divided into two parts. The first centers on the lyric “Loving you is complicated.” The loving is self-love. Here Kendrick struggles with emotions, confidence, and ego in light of his success as an artist.
The second half has Kendrick rapping in a higher voice that suggests that he’s speaking from drunkenness and despair. It’s almost painful to hear him angrily voice out his guilt, shame, and depression. The song only finds its light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel in the context of the whole album, which is fluctuates between status quo and hope of a better future. It helps that “Alright” comes after “u” in the album, which contains the line “if God got us then we gon’ be alright.”
4. Lorde – A World Alone
Lorde is a genius. She’s been praised by David Bowie, covered by Arcade Fire. She’s one of the best pop songwriters of our time. She sings about isolation. She sings about losing childhood. She sings about the Internet culture that has allowed people to freely make rude comments and gossip with little or no consequence. And her album Pure Heroine (2013) came out when she was only 17.
“A World Alone,” the last track from Pure Heroine, is about all the themes mentioned above, and it contains one of my favorite song-lines: “Maybe the Internet raised us or maybe people are jerks.”
3. The 1975 – Robbers
According to Last.fm, I’ve listened to “Robbers” more than any other song. It’s a well-written tune. It tells a good story, which I think is based on a Tarantino short film. It isn’t The 1975’s best song, but it’s my favorite song of theirs.
There’s this one point near the end of the the song where the lead singer Matt Healy’s voice jumps between octaves and it sounds so heartfelt and sincere that you can’t help but get hit by the feels. The music video is also top-notch I think.
2. LCD Soundsystem – Dance Yrself Clean
“Dance Yrself Clean” (2013) is my second-favorite track, but it’s kinda hard to articulate why. It might be that the song starts really low-volume but then gets you in the middle with the sudden burst in volume and energy. It might be the fact that it’s both an indie and a dance track: it makes you want to reflect on existence, or on the human condition, or on how non-mainstream you’re being aaand it makes you want to writhe awkwardly and dance your cares away. The middle dance section encourages us to “go and dance [ourselves] clean / … it’s [our] show.”
Thing is, the lyrics in the low-volume section get at the social anxiety of being unsure about whether people like you or not and needing desperately to know. You get that sense again at the end. “Dance Yrself Clean” ends quietly in a letdown after the hype of the dancefloor. You tried to dance yourself free of your worries–but in the end, what?
1. Arcade Fire – Modern Man
“Modern Man” (2010) is my favorite song from my favorite album of my favorite band.
Arcade Fire has always been about huge, sweeping issues. “Modern Man” is a perfect exemplar of what AF is about. It’s about the general uneasiness/malaise we have in our supposedly well-advanced and -developed time.
The narrator of the song finds himself waiting, standing in lines so much of his life. All this waiting is done in accordance to a story shaped by a modern vision. But the narrator realizes that it’s all deeply, fundamentally, like C.S.-Lewis-“made-for-another-world”-level unsatisfying and confusing (“In line for a number but you don’t understand”). “Something don’t feel right,” the song repeats, and eventually comes my favorite lines from my favorite song from etc. etc.:
If it’s alright
then how come you can’t sleep at night?
So why can’t you?
As [Zadie] Smith notes … “We know the consequences of this instinctively; we feel them. We know that having two thousand Facebook friends is not what it looks like. We know that we are using the software to behave in a certain, superficial way toward others. We know what we are doing ‘in’ the software. But do we know, are we alert to, what the software is doing to us?” Twitter and Facebook are not just “media” that are neutral, benign conduits of information and communication; they are world-making and identity-constituting. They invite and demand modes of interaction that function as liturgies. Like so many formative liturgies, they extort the essential by the seemingly insignificant, precisely by telling us a Story, capturing our imaginations to perceive the world in ways we don’t even realize. We imagine more than we know.
Christian worship invites us into a very different social ontology, through a different set of rituals—a counter-liturgy. Whereas the technological rituals we just considered reinforce a social imaginary in which I am the center of the universe, only related to others as an audience for my display, Christian worship is an intentionally decentering practice, calling us out of ourselves into the very life of God. That worship begins with a call is already a first displacement that is at the same time an invitation: to find ourselves in Christ … calling us out of ourselves and into the life of the Triune God, not to “lose” ourselves, but to be found in him. (James K.A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom)
This is a timely rebuke—and one I’ll be needing constantly.
The underlying [key to life in a bureaucratic world] is the ability to deal with boredom. To function effectively in an environment that precludes everything vital and human. To breathe, so to speak, without air.
It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.
(The Pale King 440)
This post, which I’ve been meaning to write for some time now (I’ve kinda let this blog atrophy from neglect), is inspired by a line from a song by the hipsterly-named folk band Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros called “Home.” Here’s a link.
The line goes: “Home is whenever I’m with you.”
(If you know the song, you may recall the line as “Home is wherever I’m with you.” I don’t hear an “r.” Different lyrics websites understandably vary in their renditions of the line. Metrolyrics is adamant that it’s “wherever”/”where” in every instance of the line. AZLyrics thinks it’s “wherever”/”where” in most cases but does have “when” in some instances. Genius.com (how flattering) agrees with me and has “whenever”/”when” in each case. In any case, the consonant is vague, and the listener is free, I guess, to hear it as he/she wants to. And besides, this isn’t the point of my post.)
The line appears not to make any surprising claim, but it actually does. For those who have grown up in a house/houses, the concept of home is inextricably tied to a space. It’s somewhere we go to, as opposed to something we, I don’t know, exist in.
(I mean exist in that hazy sense that we use when we in despair or boredom or some wonderful combination of the two say “What does it mean to exist?”. What I mean is I’m keeping exist from its [good-and-proper] entailment of being in a space. Of course humans normally exist in a space. It’s just that they also exist in a time. This latter point is the side of the coin that I want to focus on in this post.)
Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros (henceforth ES&TMZ) construe “home” as a time. This is not to say that they construe it as a time exclusively. Other lines in the song mention spaces: “Alabama, Arkansas,” “the park… the jungle,” “moats and boats and waterfalls,” etc. This is natural and inevitable. But this doesn’t weaken the claim of home-as-time. In fact, the plethora of spaces mentioned throughout the song implies that the two lovers (I should have mentioned this: the song is sung by a man and woman representing two lovers)—the song implies that the two lovers can be at home regardless of the space.
Read that last clause again, it’s important.
ES&TMZ’s claim means something to me, who of course associates “home” with a “space” but finds it extremely helpful to think of “home” as a time. At this particular moment, I think of a house with yellow/orange-ish tones and stairs and a nice countertop and many bookshelves. When I’m at college abroad, I sort of think of my dorm room as my home, but there is a dissatisfaction in calling it so. The reason, I guess, is that the dorm room (both as space and, although it’s weird, time) doesn’t mean the things I’ve come to associate with “home.”
And when I say “come to associate,” I drag in the experience of having lived in all the houses my family has inhabited so far (17 houses, I think, by my count). “Home,” considered not from the discreet present but from the reflective, total, and terribly abstract perspective of my life as a whole lump, for me can’t be tied to a single house, which is to say it can’t be tied to a single space—although I can do so and can’t help doing so at particular points-in-time.
(As a sort of counter-argument:
Insofar as “space” is concerned, we, who live through particular points-in-time, inevitably associate home with a particular place [or if you have multiple houses, places]. Also, you can’t do things from that “abstract perspective” which considers time as an accumulated sum. Pity, but it’s probably for the best.)
What do I do then? Construe home not only as space, but also as time. Which is weird but also makes sense in a way. Thanks, ES&TMZ.
(edited. from my old blog. a sort of synthesis of Homer and Jorge Luis Borges [“The Immortal”])
Burned by the middle-sun, we came unto a city
Walled as if by thoughts,
Awaiting still the Sack, when she would
Scream. We came unto those unwalls and found
The Gate-elders, whose craniums were on the verge of bursting.
We approached those languid kings and
Inquired: “What is this city called? who rules it?
Who built it? who are you?
Where are we? do you understand us?”
So said we, to whom one swollen, wrinkled mouth:
“This city, we knew its name
Once. Who rules it, we know no longer.
This country, this strand beside the sea
Of the world, this earth: now it is as if foreign
To us, wizened into abstracted cadavers.
We understand your speech, but the memory
Of it already dies away and floats
Into that ancient Argive’s void. We have lost
Our bearings; we are as children lost
In the undulations of faceless monsters.
We were consumed and excreted by the present,
And now are ever pressed by the question: ‘Where is mother?
Oh, where, where, where, is mother?’
We cannot retrace our steps, can only move forward,
Our god is Progress, whom we revile—no other to protest.
The walls, I think, are sound, as your speech is.
A tune three thousand leagues away to the west hints
The foundations are sound also.
This city was built on terrifying rhythmic drum beats,
Or the blare of a mad poet’s voice.
We are haunted not by sound—the walls crumble—but
By black letters on pale parchment, and,
Of late, by pictures and by moving images,
The memory of movement, the soundless swells
Of torpid river-torrents of shields, spears, and scrolls.”
His feeble voice resumed: “Before I forget entirely—
I am Priam, Laomedon’s son, or was Priam;
Or was I Atrides Agamemnon?
Or Menelaus? or the father, Atreus, Pelops’ son?
I am too old, too old.”
His finger pointing near imperceptible to the right:
“This is Achilles, man-slaying son of Peleus—”
His once long and glorious beauty
The sorry hairs of an overused broom.
“—He is Achilles, and look!
Look at his hands—” his voice’s timbre was unchanged
“—The blood on his hands!” We looked, but
Pelides’ hands were the brown of ancient paper—
Whether it was the blood of Priam’s sons, or the atrophy,
We could not tell. The smell gave away nothing.
We thought we saw a crystal tear run down
Priam’s face, muddying itself in its course.
Pointing to the left: “Nestor, who has slept since, since…”
The pallid head was flung back; the great mouth lacked every tooth.
Pointing farther: “Ajax the Giant, and Ajax the Lesser,
But who is who, I can no longer tell.”
“That sea-faring king, Odysseus, left us long ago.
I miss him, I miss him, or do I hate him? Neither that can I recall.
That is Idomeneus, and that Aeneas—
But he left, too, didn’t he? He left as well…”
We said, in reply: “Are you not all dead?
Why are you unsure of who you are?
Why do you sit side by side, who were
Warring enemies, who wept because of each other’s
Brutal, bloody work?”
The decrepit megacephalic: “I am…Priam. I am dying.
I would like to be dead and not dying—indeed, all of us—
But that thread, a single capillary, has not run its span.”
(A decade later, we realized we were the reason.)
“There,” pointing to a figure sitting solitary, “is
Hector, breaker of horses,” and, unprecedentedly:
“We are all overladen Hector,
And we are all Achilles,
Murderous and doomed.
We are all Priam,
Ragged, filthy, and hungry.
We are all Agamemnon,
Slain by treacherous dagger.
We are all Menelaus,
Whose wife was stolen way.
We are all Paris,
Who is execrated by all.
We are all Aeneas,
We are every soldier
Whose blood poured itself forth in the sight of these walls.
No one who has stood on this cursed soil
Stands in and of himself.
I am vanishing—” he croaked an attempt at a laugh
“—We here all live this lengthy, evil process of dying.”
We stood silent, being able to do nothing else.
Priam’s eyes glistened, as they did at Hector’s rape.
“We all returned here, to this burnt land;
There was no other country who’d keep us.
We took the gods by the hand, we found
We were a match, we drove our spears straight through their mouths.
We slew the Olympians together, in the name of
Progress,” said the king, who before our sight visibly wasted away.
“It did nothing. Father Zeus’ brood were phantoms
In the end. Other gods had risen with the new sun.”
“Proceed, if you wish,” he continued.
“You will find multitudes inside.”
After a solemn, motionless, darkening hour, we did so.
With a faint “Halt who goes there” dogging our steps, we walked
Into the fading, torn-paper streets, ascended
The hellish rungs of descent. After years, we found
Ilus, son of Tros, erector of the city, a skeleton on his toilet.