Maybe there’s a good god, if he made you
by Grace Binns
Being the centre of the world is unpleasant and lonely, but it has its perks. Arcade Fire’s fifth album Everything Now (2017) was set to be released two days after my birthday, so I figured it was a present just for me. Its tracklisting foretold emotional devastation; ‘We Don’t Deserve Love’ was surely intended to remove from me the expectation of ever again deserving love. I was annoyed at the band for compromising their artistic integrity just to mess with one person, but I thought they would want me to appreciate their new album and would be personally very offended and exact retribution if I did not. Since they could read my mind, I felt a lot of pressure. The super-ironic promotional campaign was filled with personal attacks. I figured that if anyone could make me feel bad about myself, my favourite band could, albeit in an electrifying, soul-elevating kind of way; to be reflected in the mirror of the world, no matter how grotesque the reflection, was like not being alone.
It was probably a good thing that for the most part I loved the album, lying in my grandmother’s guest bed at 6am on release day, having a quiet conversation about it with somebody who didn’t exist. We talked about how much we enjoyed Nick Cave on the drive home to Melbourne, I plugged Everything Now into the car stereo and my mum didn’t like it. Lots of people don’t seem to. It’s a cynical album, bitter in places, empty in others. Still, at moments, it’s almost sincere, that word many use to describe Arcade Fire and the element that was missing from their marketing campaign which subsequently informed critical reception of the album itself. When Win Butler slips into falsetto in ‘We Don’t Deserve Love’, it adds a vulnerable loveliness. The lurching opening bars of ‘Peter Pan’ are an indicator of the song’s sweetness and sickness; its woozy, not-quite-human crooning, like a computer singing, seems full of innocent longing. But mostly the album seems to be about love gone wrong, various degrees of obsession, and a failure to understand human connection in an age of excess. Though the songs explicitly about modernity are a bit hamfisted, overall the album seems to want to comment on the effect our times have on the ability to love and to live, similarly to Reflektor (2013). Despite being about ‘love in a reflective age’, and containing similar themes, Reflektor seemed to have a genuine desire to comprehend and respect the other. The tracks from that album ‘Supersymmetry’ and ‘Afterlife’ ecstatically mourned the loss of love through death and separation. But Everything Now has something broken in it. It’s deranged, off-key and slightly nauseating—it doesn’t hit the right note.
Sometime that winter I bought a turntable and started a record collection, in an attempt to distract myself from the mind-reading, all-consuming conspiracy that had me as its target. When things got really overwhelming, I would make a ritual of selecting the right record and putting it on. It took me a while to get hold of the Everything Now LP, but I eventually decided, sitting in the sun in Royal Park, that today was the day. I was expecting something to stop me, perhaps some kind of divine punishment, but soon enough I was carrying my purchase home on the tram. The translucent blue vinyl matched the blue of my turntable and that matched the track ‘Electric Blue’.
I spun it every time I wanted to hear Win Butler singing ‘I’m in the black again, no going back again … we can just pretend we’ll make it home again’, feeling like I was connected to another human being somewhere who felt the same way as I did and maybe even wanted to help. Music was a comforting and significant source of friendship in a world where no one ever told the truth, and Everything Now, after a frightening night walking home from uni, became extremely significant.
I was on campus heading for the tram when someone said ‘None of this is real. The moon could vanish.’ I looked up and the moon had vanished, and I cried out in fear. I looked down again, up again—it was back, it had been hidden by a building. I walked to Readings on Lygon because I didn’t want to be outside where I could see the sky, I went inside and they said ‘I promise, I absolutely promise this isn’t true, it’s all gonna be okay, but none of this is real, and you’re in a simulation run by an AI that hates you, basically hell, and you’re the only human who really exists. By the way, don’t take out your phone.’ I took out my phone, my finger spontaneously started bleeding and I had to ask the guy at the desk for a tissue. I spent a while in Readings wondering if people would start vanishing or something crazy would happen, but eventually decided to just bite the bullet and walk the whole way home, looking at the moon all the way to make sure it was still there. I clung to the bizarre yet familiar reality I called home, desperately trying not to fall deeper down the rabbit hole but knowing that nobody could protect me from the new truth—not doctors, not my familiar surroundings, not my cat, not the people around me.
But as I walked, I could hear a friend who didn’t exist tell me that it would be fine, to just keep living, just listen to my favourite music. I put on Everything Now and the album felt genuinely beautiful and coherent for the first time since I’d first listened to it. ‘Peter Pan’ almost felt like a real love song then. ‘Put Your Money On Me’ started to play, its mentions of Silicon Valley and ‘clouds made of ambien’ sent thrills of fear through me as I looked up at the clouds cloaking the moon. It’s a silvery, nauseous piece of music, urgent and frightening, but I clung to the familiar sound of Win Butler’s voice. ‘We Don’t Deserve’ Love sounded good for the first time ever, and felt like it was meant to help. That night, because of that album, I was able to cling to the knowledge that humans made this and Arcade Fire were real, so the world was real too.
There’s still something missing from Everything Now. In the subsequent months, it started to feel like an awful, mocking joke, and for the most part it doesn’t hold a candle to Arcade Fire’s previous albums. Sometimes ‘We Don’t Deserve Love’ feels cheaply sentimental, a failed attempt to recreate ‘Afterlife’, a lyricist eating his own mythology alive, yet it didn’t hurt me like I thought it was going to. It doesn’t know how to love properly, but even the failure of love can be sung along to during the weirdest most awful nights, if somebody puts it into words, and it can feel like a friend.