by Fionna Farrell
[originally published May 20, 2022]
Because it is populated by humans, it seems that the earth is very often on the verge of apocalypse. Perhaps now more than ever—just a little. Our music is, and always has been, very well aware of this fact. For better or for worse.
If you’ve ever turned on a television, you’ve probably heard REM’s runaway smash hit “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” which reckons with the end through birthday parties, cheesecake, and Lenny Bruce. Or maybe you’re a bit more of a sentimentalist and cry along to Bowie’s “Five Years,” wondering when exactly it all went wrong. These are just a couple of—notably pretty old—examples. Apocalypse looks and sounds a lot different now.
Maybe that’s because the past two years have particularly sucked ass. In these dire times, dystopia feels like less of an imagined, though perhaps imminent reality, but a distinctly present one. We are desperately searching for a way out—or maybe just a cooler spot in the hellfire for a few minutes. Something along the lines of confirmation that we’re still here somehow.
On May 6th, Canadian rock group Arcade Fire released their sixth album, WE, which attempts to do these things. And, to their detriment, so much more.
Arcade Fire is one of those bands with, like, eight members. They toss around enormous multi-colored beach balls at their concerts. They have a thing for yearning choruses and biblical imagery. Until, that is, they get tired of that and try their hands at disco—which, for 2013’s Reflektor, was successful; there is a gloriously palpable dark, nervy energy to that album. In WE, that energy is lost and reduced to hokey platitudes.
If I’m coming off a little harsh, it might be because 2022 has left me a hardened, brittle shell of a human being. I am no longer the marshmallow I was in 8th grade, when Reflektor came out. But I’m not upset—I thank whatever God is up there every day for that.
Call it perspective, call it the loss of innocence, or just call it life, but I find it harder to believe in certain things now. But this doesn’t mean I’ve completely lost my soul yet. The line “We’re just a million little gods causing rainstorms, turning every good thing to rust” still causes some eye-perspiration for me. As does, honestly, the entirety of the album Funeral, which is timelessly exciting and heart-wrenching. WE tries so, so hard to be either of these things but instead plateaus in a tired simulacrum of genuine emotion.
Whereas Funeral finds propulsion in its thunderous urgency, its ability to transcend time and the chaos of the mortal universe, WE finds itself imprisoned by these concepts. This is essentially due to the fact that the album has nothing new to say—or hear. Tale the title of the record’s opening track “Age of Anxiety I” — if this is only the first age of anxiety we’re living in, then I think I’m about ready to turn in. Here are some of the prized lyrics on that track: “Fight the fever with TV/ In the age where nobody sleeps/ And the pills do nothing for me/ In the age of anxiety.”
I’d like to say it gets better, but it doesn't. In fact, it gets worse. Try to hold back a cringe while you hear Win Butler—now well over 40, who writes like a twenty year old who has just read Huxley for the first time—drone on about “unsubscribing” from it all. In a song called “End of the Empire I-IV”, the effort becomes not earnest but offensive. He helplessly croons, “The algorithm prescribed / Do you feel alright?”
No I do not. But I think Win Butler does not realize he is a large part of the reason why. In 2022, we need more than just earnesty to get us through. I have no doubt that these lyrics, and their accompanying melodies which so tepidly mirror the group’s earliest efforts, come from a genuine place at heart. However, the idea of a collapsing world isn’t new anymore—-at least not new in the way that it was in 2010, when doom almost felt like potential. When technology and the like incited excitement as much as it incited dread. WE’s music is just lukewarm; the lyrics are simply bad. When dystopia is more than a sci-book (one of which, conveniently, the album is also named after), we need something to not just “move” us, in those mawkish, maudlin ways that we have been used to Before, but to uproot us. We need to start somewhere totally fresh.
I think that there are lots of bands that do that. However, their music might not be so amenable to the common ear. I don’t say that to sound pretentious—imagine an Obie doing that on purpose?---but rather, what I mean is that music that really “says” something can be quite subversive and therefore jarring. Lyrically, melodically, and in pure terms of its album art, albums which criticize the “dystopia” as not just an abstract ideal, but as a fastidiously constructed reality don’t sugarcoat the truth. Nor do they over-sentimentalize it; in the late stage capitalist hellscape, what is the point of talking about being “wild and free”? Of pretending you’re living in a Black Mirror episode (but not one of the bleak ones—-the one about the lesbian couple that everyone likes)? Maybe the only way of truly coping in the dystopia is not to pretend that we’ll transcend it, but by picking it apart shard by shard.
In other words, sometimes “irony” (or whatever the opposite of earnest is) gets us further than earnesty—-it is the latter bends towards delusion, the former, away from it. Now, I’m not saying that’s true in some cases, or that artists should forsake their sentimental impulses in order to create something more “real.” Too much irony can have its consequences, just like being too “earnest.” Both of these extremes have the potential to shape an eye-rolling version of un-reality. Only, those who do it “ironically” presume themselves to be smarter than us mortals with emotions. For example, there is an artist who goes by the moniker Turtlenecked who I’ve been checking out recently—even his name feels like a shot at something (perhaps at pseudo-intellectuals named Harrison, which is his real name). Whereas Butler tearfully laments the TV fever, Harrison snaps with a snark: “Reality TV! I’m not here to make friends!” We might smile for a second, as we would at a stale joke.
The thing about “irony”, though, which is perhaps more compelling than earnestness, under modern circumstances, is that it gives us room to laugh at the world. And at ourselves. Sometimes—quite often—it is bitter laughter, like when listening to a song called “Proud Boys” by a hardcore group (Show Me the Body, if you’re interested) and then remembering, well, just what it is the song is about. Speaking of punks who like to use humor to play with us like that: Philadelphia hardcore band Soul Glo recently put out an album called Diaspora Problems that is equally funny as it is important—-perhaps important because it is funny, in its absurd, sardonic way that makes us do a double take instead of cry. Some of its song titles include: “Gold Chain Punk (whogonbeatmyass?)”, “Coming Correct is Cheaper”, “Jump! (Or Get Jumped!!)(by the future))” and “Driponomics”. That last one is my favorite.
Songs like this and what they reveal about our society, once we dissect them, show us that earnestness isn’t lost in humor. Humor, rather, can be a vehicle for it, only in a mutated form that we’re not quite familiar with yet. One that perhaps makes us writhe uncomfortably, instead of reaching for the tissue box. In the end, it’s all about finding the line between irony and earnestness and tracing it with caution and deliberateness. To, if nothing else, finding something relatively important to say. In that light, here are some other albums that I find rail against the “dystopia” successfully, through their humor that layers something real: The Koreatown Oddity’s Little Dominique’s Nosebleed, The Knife’s Shaking the Habitual, Surfobrt’s Keep On Truckin, and Deep Tan’s Diamond Horsetail. From there, the list goes on. Silver tongues and scathing wit have no bounds in genre. Cloying, bottomless wailing certainly does, and it’s whatever genre Arcade Fire is trying to be right now.