Our Anthems Weigh a Ton
Recently, indie music fans were treated to a Montreal band's prescription for tweaking perception as a way of bridging the gap to a more perfect union. It is a song that captures imaginations and sets them to dreaming about the everyday ways in which we fail ourselves and fail the world, but then lifts them back out of the muck with the promise that these failures aren't sins - they are simply included in the fabric of living. To feel, to want, to sometimes be disappointed, these things are features of living in the 21st Century, not bugs.
Everything Now's eponymous single is not a flag planted to designate stable and solid ground in the maelstrom of content that we find ourselves living in as much as it is an attempt to be every possible flag under every possible sun in every possible universe. On its face, it tries to be an antidote to general apathy and ennui, but Win Butler's titular refrain has a cloying quality, a derisive inside joke that mocks us all by telling us that wanting everything is bullshit because "everything" is the enemy of individuality. While he's not wrong, his chronically problematic lyrical shenanigans undermine his message in ways that feel simultaneously heavy-handed and tone-deaf: "Every inch of space in my heart is filled with something I'll never start" reads like a parable of self-awareness recited by someone who has very little of it; "I pledge allegiance to everything now" lands with a thud, and instead of the thud opening the ground to disrupt the status quo, all it does is make a loud noise. The only answer offered here is little more than you're doing it wrong.
Musically, the statement comes through a little more clearly - a piano and string riff that wouldn't be out of place in a dentist's waiting room is somehow both far outside the norm for Arcade Fire but also in keeping with the cast-a-wide-net aesthetic they've been rocking for the past couple of records now. This musical motif represents the song's nearest brush with something like success, in that it encapsulates a dynamic of ultimate accessibility while poking fun at the homogenous quote-unquote "World" music rhythms and melodies that are in no short supply in the elevators of North America and on Top 40 Pop lists everywhere. But this isn't nearly enough to save the song from itself: arguing that it becomes more effective as a by-product of its genericness would strain credulity even if the reasoning contained some merit.
The song that actually accomplishes what "Everything Now" is trying and failing to do comes to us via Ought's third LP and Merge Records debut, Room Inside the World. On the album's spiritual and literal centerpiece "Desire", Tim Darcy gamely employs his bucolic goth-pop baritone to seize upon something even more universal than the idea of "everything" by honing in on affection, uncertainty, failure, regret, and ultimately hope - the hope here is portrayed as a great equalizer that actually unites people across time and distance, whereas Arcade Fire's largely implicit form of hope seems, consciously or not, to be largely tied up in something vague and metaphysical, too sociopolitical to take very seriously in practice. Darcy's way with words here is often stunning, references to "your honey in the corner of my mouth" and "a shadow in your notebook" work to magnify the uncomfortably personal into the devastatingly general - his lyrics are constantly turning the micro into the macro.
Perhaps the best way to explain how this comes across is by examining an element that both songs contain, namely the use of group vocals to provide a sense of uplift. Arcade Fire's group vocal is spread throughout the song, a call and response of "Everything now!" that echoes Butler's half-moaned platitudes, diluting itself through repetition before eventually crescendoing in something like a pagan ritual, one can imagine a drum circle around a fire in the woods that leads to a painstakingly choreographed dance number: "I need it! (Everything now!) / I want it! (Everything now!)". Ought play more cautiously optimistic with this methodology. The group vocal in "Desire" is a swell that gently rises in the back half of the song, functioning as a soft landing spot for a dejected narrator - instead of a hedonistic loss of control, we see a gentle carrying toward a difficult truth: "Desire, desire…it was never gonna stay (Never gonna stay)". The groupvoice here is agreeable and sympathetic, the raising of these voices in unison feels like each one of the voice's owners putting a hand on a shoulder, a hundred individual "I've been where you are" moments happening all at once.
Overall, "Desire" leaves with the impression that the narrator will need to become OK with some things that he may not have previously been OK with. The song opens on a question: "Didn't I say to you not too recent / It was never gonna stay?" The takeaway here is that this is something that we know is true in theory, even take it for granted, but that each time it proves itself out in real life it comes as an unexpected gut-punch. The all-important hope comes from the recommitment to continue a journey toward the day when the proof doesn't arrive, and that sense of connection is fully reciprocated and allowed, finally, to "stay".
If Western post-millennial culture has given us nothing else, it's given us the certainty that huge sweeping answers are rarely possible and are even more rarely viable. It's not enough to sit around and chide "the modern kids" for their perceived lack of engagement and their perpetuation of exaggerated lifestyles. Pointing out the flaws in the "everything" is destructive almost by definition. When answers can be found, they are more often found within the self and/or within a community. These answers can be simply the admission of difficult realizations, and their result need be nothing more than the acknowledgement of those realities by those around us. In other words, poking holes in "everything" to prove a moral superiority is not in itself a road to improvement - the arduous work of self-discovery and cultivating genuine empathy for others is something we can all strive toward every day, and if enough people live that way, we might just be able to tackle "everything" else.