ALBUM REVIEW: Arcade Fire – Everything Now (2017)

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Arcade Fire have been, in my eyes, on the decline for a while now. Following their era-defining indie rock beginnings, the band have been slowly shifting their musical direction towards the sprinklings of disco that cropped up on their first three records. Reflektor saw them testing the waters, but the band’s latest, Everything Now, finds them taking a deep plunge into the genre and drowning in the process.

This in itself isn’t the reason for the decline in quality – in fact, I think it’s a very natural progression for the band and one that, on paper, is much more interesting than some other indie musicians who’ve gone electronic in recent years (see my review of Dirty Projectors 2017 alt-R&B album for more on this).

The problem is that, with the shift in sound, all the spark seems to have gone out of the band. The youthful passion, the anthemic choruses, the excellent songwriting and touching melodies – everything has become codified and blown up a size too big. The band’s early records were intimate and personal, but they felt huge in the way they invited all of their listeners inside them, with chorus vocals equally suited to a bedroom or stadium-size singalong. This new era of the band, by contrast, just feels bloated and uninspired.

Everything Now gets off to a respectable start, though, with its three pre-release singles: the title track, ‘Signs of Life’ and ‘Creature Comfort’. ‘Sings of Life’ features some rather cringey lyrics, and ‘Creature Comfort’ some very shrill and irritating backing vocals, but besides that these songs are fairly groovy and are comparatively bearable.

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But the album takes a gigantic nosedive in quality right afterwards. ‘Peter Pan’ is smeared with dreadful, flat and farty synths that sounds like an attempt to make a dub reggae beat, but fall completely flat on their face. ‘Chemistry’ is an equally ill-advised attempt to make some kind of synth funky ska pop song. ‘Electric Blue’ features a return of those horribly shrill backing vocals, except this time they’re front and centre of the song and make it almost unlistenable.

Then there’s ‘Good God Damn’, which is staggeringly devoid of substance, featuring one of the most annoying three-note baselines I’ve heard this year, and the dreary, overlong ‘We Don’t Deserve Love’, whose title becomes more and more prescient the more I subject myself to Everything Now.

Almost every song following track four strikes me as completely devoid of passion or ideas, endlessly repeating melodies, vocals and lyrics that are boring at best and irritating at worst. There is more than a little irony here, given that Everything Now is pitched as a critique of brainless entertainment  and repetitive production.

It’s a very shallow critique, and one that doesn’t extend much further than ‘there’s lots of MEDIA, guys…brainwashing!!!11’. But for as much as Everything Now might want you to think it’s on the outside looking in, the album falls prey to the very forces it attempts to critique. Don’t let it fool you: Everything Now is just another pooped out concoction of product-line capitalism, designed to fill stadiums with passionless indie dance songs until the next album cycle rolls around.

4.1/10

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ALBUM REVIEW: Tyler the Creator – Flower Boy (2017)

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The latest album from Odd Future founder and controversial rapper Tyler, the Creator finds the artist at a crossroads. The collective with which he rose to fame has dissolved, its many members splintering off and maturing as solo artists – Earl Sweatshirt has been digging into a rabbithole of increasingly gloomy loner rap, and Frank Ocean has blossomed into an alt-R&B megastar with his boundary-pushing blond.

Scum Fuck Flower Boy, to give the record its full title, represents another such evolution. This is easily Tyler’s best record yet, one that finds him casting off the controversy and the bravado to create a revealing, honest and very personal album. It represents a significant step up in production quality, and brings a new soul/funk influence to the table, with a clear debt owed to Stevie Wonder.

Flower Boy is smoother, funkier, and prettier than anything Tyler has created in the past, but it still sounds unmistakably like the same artist. The album very effectively fuses warmer sounds with the sour and spiky synthesizers that are Tyler’s trademark, creating a psychedelic cocktail of introspective hip-hop that is both dreamy and visceral.

The record comes on the back of some unignorable revelations about Tyler’s sexuality, which have already been heavily dissected by a ravenous music blogosphere. While it would be nice to live in a world where a high profile rapper coming out was not news at all, the casual homophobia contained within Tyler’s previous records, as well as comments he has made in the past, make that pretty much an impossibility.

In retrospect, it’s easy to see how a lot of those comments were the result of fear, shame or confusion – the kind that is pouring out of almost every track on Flower Boy. On ‘Garden Shed’, Tyler talks about ‘feelings I was guarding / heavy on my mind’ which his friends couldn’t understand, or which he thought were a ‘phase’ that would go away.

The lyrics on Flower Boy might betray a lot of personal turmoil, then, but their delivery is full of confidence. Tyler’s flows and writing on this record are a big step up from his previous work, with some particular highlights to be found on the exuberant ‘Who Dat Boy’ and ‘I Aint Got Time!’. There are still some spots where the delivery is a bit awkward, stretching a syllable too far or fitting too much into a line. But by and large the lyricism on show here is a huge improvement.

In every aspect, in fact, Flower Boy is a major improvement for Tyler. I honestly didn’t think that he had an album of this quality in him, but I find myself very pleasantly surprised not just by the music, but by the newfound humility and vulnerability of its creator. This is the sound of an artist finding his voice both sonically and personally, and it feels, in many ways, like the beginning of a new chapter.

8.2/10

ALBUM REVIEW: King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard – Murder of the Universe (2017)

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Australian psych-rockers King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, an easy contender for best-named band around, return with their tenth album, and second in 2017, Murder of the Universe. This time, they’ve assembled an insane psych-rock opera split into three chapters, full of tales of beasts, magicians, monsters and a vomiting cyborg.

The results, however, are a bit of a mixed bag. While Murder of the Universe, like every King Gizz album, is very inventive and brings with it an extravagantly imagined concept, the rate at which this prolific band is putting out records has started to betray a distinct formula behind their sound.

Just as on those previous records, we have here lots of motorik Krautrock drums and spitting drumfills, warbly vocals matched to the melody of the lead guitar, and roving basslines. Almost every song features the same ‘HOOOOOOOOO’ ad-lib, and certain lyrics and melodies even repeat themselves across multiple tracks.

Some of this is as a result of the album’s three-part structure, with the first ‘chapter’ being essentially one long twenty minute song split into nine tracks. But at other moments the repetition feels much less deliberate, and more like the work of a band who are plugging away at the same ideas they’ve already explored.

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It’s a shame, because the production and the sheer amount of ambition on show with Murder of the Universe set King Gizzard apart from the crowd. The spoken word poetry cut into most of the tracks on this album is fun and certainly unique, even if the delivery and rhythm is a bit flat and predictable.

But the concepts behind the bands last handful of records (one loops the end to the beginning, one uses microtonal tuning, one has four songs of exactly equal length) begin to feel like superficial creativity when the core sound at their centre isn’t changing.

And while that sound might be exciting and immaculately produced, I can’t help but feel on Murder of the Universe that I’m taking the same roller coaster ride I’ve taken twenty times before, and am beginning to see through its manufactured peaks and troughs to the familiar and predictable scaffolding beneath.

6.4/10