Artist: Everything Everything
Album: A Fever Dream
In Brief: With relentless, hypnotic rhythms, hypnotic guitar and synth melodies that sear into your brain, and politically-charged lyrics, Everything Everything has, well, just about everything I’ve been hoping to get out of an indie rock record in the year 2017.
I’m kind of bummed that I hadn’t heard of the band Everything Everything until this year. They’re the kind of band that has pretty immediate appeal for me – an indie/art rock outfit with a strong focus on rhythm and some insanely catchy riffs and choruses. Somehow they’ve managed to get four albums under their belt before showing up on my radar – I guess you could blame some of that on them being from across the pond, but it’s not like physical distance has much of an effect on which bands I hear about in a day and age where I can stream pretty much anything at a moment’s notice. Listening to them in their current incarnation, I hear a fair amount of similarities to another Manchester-based band, Doves, who also had a bit of a rhythmic/dance background underpinning their brand of indie rock, and who I didn’t get into until they were on album #4. (Have people tried to give me more of a heads up on these kinds of bands, and I’ve just been really dense about it? Who knows.) However, due to the way these guys work R&B influences into their music, I also hear pretty strong reminders of TV on the Radio, an American band I’ve followed for a few albums now but never fully fallen in love with. And the strong, at times almost overbearing falsetto vocals of lead singer Jonathan Higgs bear passing resemblance to Dougy Mandagi from The Temper Trap, an Australian transplant to the UK whose records I’ve enjoyed to varying degrees. These bands all probably share some common influences from the earlier days of indie rock, Britpop, and soul music. Everything Everything just happens to pull their set of influences together in a more immediately engaging and intriguing way than I’ve heard from any of the other bands I’ve mentioned. Their fourth album, A Fever Dream, was released this summer, and it hasn’t taken very long at all for it to become one of the most-played and most-enjoyed 2017 releases in my iTunes library. It’s just that darn good.
What immediately stands out as I dive into Everything Everything’s individual songs – catchy as most of them may be – is that they maintain an uneasy balance between catharsis and confrontation. The backdrop of recent world events – most notably Brexit and the trend toward nationalism in European and American politics in recent years – appears to inform a number of their songs, though many of them are just abstractly stated enough that you could imagine them to be about any number of urgent issues. It’s not the kind of thing you listen to for emotional comfort, per se, but the intoxicating way that they put all of the beats and riffs and layered vocals together certainly makes it go down easier. I can see this odd set of ingredients – high-pitched, yelpy vocals, references to historical and current events that aren’t exactly topics for idle chit-chat, intense and sometimes claustrophobic percussion – not working very well for some listeners. But it’s the kind of thing that had me feeling at home right away, because I love a good, high-octane hook when it’s coming from a band that is emphasizing both a desire to experiment and a desire to immediately hook the listener. The band has their calmer moments, too, where they play with more fluid melodies and occasionally dip into more of a dreamlike state (hence the album’s title). Definitely a lot of variance from one track to the next, just to keep the listener from knowing exactly what to expect.
If there’s one drawback to A Fever Dream, it’s that it starts off so strong out of the gate, hitting you with a string of incredibly addictive, intense up-tempo numbers as well as a few ballads that sneak up on you as they gain momentum, that there seems to be no right way to come down from the high at the end of the album. I’ll take nine tracks as solid as the first nine on this record over 12 merely good ones from most other bands, but I have to admit that I’m not really feeling the two closing tracks on this album. Out of eleven total, that’s still a darn good track record. But a part of me wishes that the “just OK” tracks were somewhere in the middle so that it could end strong – it’s like if a new season of a TV show you were binge watching got rave reviews and kept you glued to your seat from the premiere most of the way through the season, and then it just sort of sputtered out on a lackluster cliffhanger, leaving you wondering if the showrunners ran short on time. I don’t want to badmouth the end of this album too much, because it’s not terrible by any means. The group just sets a really high bar for themselves, I guess. It’s a good problem to have.
Overall, I really can’t recommend A Fever Dream enough – it’s the kind of record that gets me excited to dig into the rest of Everything Everything’s discography once I start running the risk of playing this one way too darn many times. Those who know my listening habits well enough by now could probably say that they’d be rich if I had a dime for every time I said I’d explore a band’s back catalogue and didn’t end up doing it. The bands I actually take the time to do that with after becoming a fan midway through their career are pretty rare these days. So for me to identify these guys as a band I’d want to do that with shows what an immediate (and hopefully lasting) impression they’ve made on me.
1. Night of the Long Knives
I can’t think of very many introductions to a band that left as strong as an impression as this one did on me. For starters, its title references a violent campaign carried out by Hitler to solidify power by assassinating his political opponents as the Nazi Party took power. So I’m already on the edge of my seat wondering what they’re going to use that as an analogy for. Higgs’ opening cry of “Hold me on this light of the long knives” over a backdrop of staccato keyboards and rumbling bass would be a strong enough vocal hook to draw me into a song, but this song doesn’t stop there. The beat is absolutely infectious when it kicks in, the synths inject an alarm-like sound that slowly bends pitch as if it could be some sort of a mobile air raid siren, and the backing vocals chime in again and again, “Shame about your neighborhood”, pretty much offering a thinly veiled “Sorry, not sorry” about how prevailing political attitudes have left vulnerable groups of people to be laid to waste by the angry majority. The real kicker comes in the lead-up to the chorus: “I’m the wrong kind of people, why’d you listen to me?”, as if to shift the blame from the alarmists whose loud voices led to this instability to those gullible enough to actually listen to them. A reference to “The island breathing in and out” makes this most likely to be about the UK’s exit from the European Union and the economic upheaval that’s expected to cause, but I could just as easily see the reference to eliminating opposing voices being a parallel to Donald Trump‘s whole “Drain the swamp” mantra as well – perhaps not at all violent, but with similarly dire consequences for a country depending on the leaders appointed by the figurehead they voted into office. You could read a lot of different situations into this one. What rings loud and clear despite any possible interpretation of this song is the main chorus hook, when Higgs cries out “It was a LOOOOONG! TIIIIIIME! COMIIIIIIING!” None of our societies changed overnight. The catalysts for these alarming changes were slowly gaining traction while some of us were too smug to take them seriously. It’s not exactly the kind of song that makes you feel good about yourself, but despite how unnervingly it sounds every alarm bell it can, it’s an amazing example of how all of the different moving parts come together to make this an incredibly tight performance filled to the brim with restless creative energy.
2. Can’t Do
Lead guitarist Alex Robertshaw came up with the basic melody and tune for the album’s lead single, which puzzled Higgs for a while as he tried to figure out what to sing to accompany it. What resulted was a fantastic little dance-rock number about the pressures of coming up with one hit after the next to stay relevant in the music business. By singing about what he couldn’t manage to do, I think he managed to come up with a pretty darn good candidate for a hit, at least. The synths and drums make the absolute most of their competing, syncopated patterns, while the guitar darts in and out between them, everyone still on the 4/4 grid but finding some enticingly erratic ways to keep the listener guessing, including a few glorious moments where the vocals and keyboards break away from the tense rhythm as if finding a moment of clarity. Higgs’ cry, “Help me! I can’t do the thing you want!” is probably something every songwriter struggling with writer’s block has felt at one point or another, and I think he captures the tension between remaining artistically credible and artistically viable quite perfectly here, despite this being a well-worn topic in pop and rock music.
Up next is yet another winner – if the punchy rhythm and the guitar riff pretty clearly meant to evoke the Tears For Fears classic “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” don’t grab you right away, then well, maybe you’re just not in the mood for something as unapologetically catchy as this, I guess. I absolutely love it, and I think it’s fascinating to hear synthpop influences from decades past coming together with the sort of messy, swaggery brit-rock anthem that I can easily imagine Doves having come up with. The high-pitched vocals blurting out the chorus of “Desire, desire, I can’t stop now!” might be a lot more manic than either of the bands I’ve referenced, but the song needs that urgency. It’s about wanting something so bad you can taste it, consequences be damned. Rather than this being a feel-good ode to throwing caution to the wind, however, it communicates the desperation of a man so bored with his life that he’s at the end of his rope: “I am a pencil pusher with the pencil pusher blues/What the hell do I have left to lose?” Few things are more dangerous than a man with nothing to lose, right? The sense of urgency to fulfill needs that have gone unmet for far too long permates the song, which doesn’t let up until the second run-through of its bridge leads you to expect that it might come out of the dense maze of sounds for a moment of clarity just as “Can’t Do” did near the end – only for the song to cut off abruptly, having reached its sudden and apparently tragic apex.
4. Big Game
This song lets us catch our breath, at least for the first half of it, which finds Higgs in a more reflective mode against a mellower beat, more relaxed keyboards, and shimmering guitars. His falsetto is really on point here as he tries to state calmly and evenly how he thinks a person’s childish attitude is going to lead to their own self-destruction. The person’s got a head so big it’s ready to burst, a tendency to throw tantrums when told he can’t do something, and tends to prefer pure bluster to an elegant, measured response when faced with adversity. “Even little children see through you/Someone’s gonna pull your big trousers down/And I think you might explode.” Sound like anyone you know, my fellow Americans? Of course it does. Trump is never explicitly named in this song, or anywhere else on this album, but it’s better that he doesn’t have to be, because who knows what ridiculous leaders might rise up a few generations from now, seeming just as hell-bent on establishing a cult of personality around themselves and not caring about the damage their posturing and bullying does to the populace they were elected to serve. It’s nothing new, as the song states at its outset. What I love is how this big, groaning guitar riff comes crashing in halfway through the song, adding a heavy dose of lumbering awkwardness to an otherwise graceful composition. It’s an aural metaphor for how the man they’re singing about looks against the elegant backdrop of the throne he’s wheeled and dealed to find himself sitting on. I find the payoff more enjoyable than the mellow leadup here, so while this one doesn’t come on as strong as my personal favorites on the album do, I do see why it needs the slow burn to make the hardest-hitting part of the song work.
5. Good Shot, Good Soldier
This song’s definitely more rhythmic than it is “rock” in the conventional sense. Don’t let the lighter groove lull you into a false sense of security, though, because the thoughts expressed here get pretty intense. Questioning whether we should always assume the authorities over us is in the right is the starting point for this song – “I’m a police, I’m a policeman/And you’re a criminal/We decided, we decided that’s that.” Elected officials and military leaders are put under the microscope here, with the song asking if might makes right and if it’s OK to bury the evidence of the wrongdoing and let history simply be told by the victors. It’s a pretty clear indictment of the authoritarian attitude that I figure persuades a lot of people to not think critically about the kinds of ridiculous leaders who got called out in the previous song. By the end of this song, things get rather metaphysical, as if Higgs is calling out God himself and asking to be struck down “with a bolt from the heavens, with a breath from a holy sigh” if it turns out that it’s wrong to question authority. To believe deep down in your heart that your society has gone so wrong, that you’re willing to stake your own life on defending your right to stand up and critique it… well, it depends on who you’re talking to. Some say that’s treason. Some say that’s a truer form of patriotism than just taking the “might makes right” narrative you’ve been handed at face value. I’m more in the latter camp, myself.
6. Run the Numbers
This song about facts vs. feelings is appropriately conflicted – going from a softer, almost calmly whispered verse to a hysterical chorus in which Higgs repeatedly cries “I don’t need to run the numbers!” to the tune of a loud, blaring guitar riff, in apparent protest of academics and political analysts and scientists and basically anyone telling him that the cold hard facts don’t hold and evidence to support his strongly held beliefs, and dammit, he’s just going to ignore them and stubbornly plow forward anyway. This could be taken as an indictment of the anti-intellectual streak making a disturbing comeback in politics on both sides of the pond lately, but I think there’s more to it than that. Those of us on the left faced our own form of willful blindness in our refusal to acknowledge how much traction certain far-right movements were gaining, pretty much ignoring for ourselves the numbers that were growing more and more convenient to acknowledge by the day. How much the left is to blame for smugly shrugging off the very real influence of ideologies we assumed sheer common sense would have defeated a long time ago is a subject that we could probably debate for centuries. But underneath it all, I think the song is expressing frustration with an unwillingness to have one’s beliefs challenged. If you’re hanging on to something worth believing, then there should be little risk in going ahead and running those numbers again and again and seeing if reality supports them or not. In reality it probably isn’t that simple, but it’s remarkable how fragile the human ego can get, and how quickly the elaborate mental defense mechanisms can get deployed when faced with the possibility of what seems like a core belief turning out to be false. With Higgs reaching the same sort of fervent fever pitch as TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe in one of their more protest-y songs, this is definitely one of the album’s more shrill and repetitive offerings, but it kind of needs to be, because if one’s beliefs are so stubbornly unwavering that they’ll never even acknowledge a legitimate challenge, all you can really do is keep shouting the same damn talking points over and over until you’re blue in the face.
7. Put Me Together
While this is the album’s mellowest song so far, with its soothing drum loop, smooth guitar flourishes, and Higgs’ chilled-out falsetto vocals, it still doesn’t let us off the hook that easily. While the chorus of this song seems to paint a picture of everyday suburban life, it depicts a family trying to distance themselves from the neighbors, observing that “They celebrate all of the same days/And you see them out doing the garden/But they’re nothing like you and me.” That last line feels almost like a mantra, that becomes truer the more this person repeats it, even though the actual daily routine seems to be the same on both sides of the fence. Basically, it’s xenophobia. We want to believe these people are alien and “other” because they don’t look like us and sometimes don’t dress like us, but then we see them taking their kids to soccer practice, and taking the same days off of work that we do to go score some sweet merchandise on sale at the local shopping center. This short-circuits the part of our brains that wants to keep them at a distance, and up go those mental defense mechanisms again. You can hear the strife, not so much in the lyrics themselves (which do express a hint of regret at having such a knee-jerk reaction to outsiders), but definitely in the percussion, which gradually spirals into an avant-garde, tape loop hell in the middle of the song, getting louder and louder until the steady pulse of a synth cuts it off and tries to restore some sort of rhythmic order. It feels like a modern-day reflection of the way jazz drummers would sometimes play around the beat, adding fills and flourishes and making a performance sound like organized chaos to the untrained ear, except in this case it’s aided by a fair amount of feedback and digital manipulation. It’s a strange and arresting way to add texture to a song that might otherwise play like a gentle lullaby, causing you to miss the internal strife it’s attempting to capture.
8. A Fever Dream
The title track was a rather gutsy choice for the album’s second single, since as you might expect from the title, it’s more of a trance-like, slow-building affair. It certainly doesn’t have a conventional verse/chorus structure – it starts out as a gentle piano ballad in 6/8, but after the first and only verse, it shifts to a repeating chorus that crescendoes steadily throughout the rest of the song. The rhythm of that chorus provides one of the most addictive grooves on the album, letting the “math-ier” tendencies that were apparently stronger in the group’s past works (from what I’ve heard at least) emerge, taking what would otherwise be 4 measures of a simple 4/4 beat and subdividing it into 6, 6, and 4, making it feel irregular even though it’s not. This allows the drums and piano to do some absolutely wonderful things with the syncopation, and it matches up well with the cadence of the lyrics: “Lord, I see a fever dream before me now.” You’ll probably be sick of that phrase by the time the song is over, though there are some occasional breaks from it for a lyrical bridge (“Be honest/You want it”) or an instrumental breakdown. I’m slightly annoyed that the song never returns to that tranquil verse melody, which seems like it might have been a nice bookend after the huge buildup and gradual release of tension in the last several minutes of the song. Still, it’s a breathtaking performance, one that I can imagine would sound larger than life itself when played as the grand finale in one of their setlists. It’s weird to me that this track doesn’t close the album, actually. It seems like the perfect sort of meditative vibe for them to go out on.
9. Ivory Tower
Jarring as it is to have one last up-tempo song here (and defiantly so!) amidst the more easygoing/ambient material surrounding it, I’m glad for the change-up. This song is probably where I get the strongest whiff of TV on the Radio, as Higgs’ rapid-fire delivery combined with Michael Spearman‘s intense drum attack reminds me of a few of their songs like “Dancing Choose” and “Happy Idiot” that took off running and never looked back. The lyrics are among the album’s most provocative, almost as if they’re intentionally trying to pick a fight, which makes sense when you consider that vitrolic discussions taking place on the Internet were the inspiration for this song. The concept of an “ivory tower”, which is basically a position of privilege from which one can look out and judge the world below them without fear of reprisal, is the perfect stand-in for the cloak of anonymity that leads folks to be so bold and belligerent on the Internet, and the song captures the frantic, blood pressure-psiking experience of getting caught up in such an argument pretty well. This is likely to be the most headache-inducing track for some listeners, especially considering the stuttering, tongue-twisting chorus: “I’m in my ivory tower/I’m in my ivory, ivory/I’m in my, I’m in my ivory, ivory, I’m in!” It’s fun to sing along with, but it’ll probably annoy the hell out of anyone who happens to be in the room/car with me at the time, ‘yknow? The breakdown at the end of the song is pretty chaotic too, with the guitars squealing, the outsized bass buzzing away, and everyone racing to keep up with the militant and yet manic drum beat. Seriously, the drums are so good in this one that it could almost be a MuteMath song. (Too soon? Sorry, MuteMath fans. I’ll get to our collective grief over Darren King in due time, I promise.)
10. New Deep
At two and a half minutes, with a long, slow fade-in, this track is really more of an interlude or a simplistic mantra than a full fledged song. The looping piano melody sure is pretty, but the lyrics, which simply repeat “Is there something wrong with all of this/Or is there something wrong with me?” don’t give me a whole lot to go on. Taken in context of the album, I suppose it could represent a man honestly questioning whether his own pride and ignorance have contributed in some way to the chaotic state of the world around him. Still, I wish there was more to this one. It’s not deliberately connected to any of the surrounding songs as far as I can tell, and when considered in a vacuum apart from the other songs, there just isn’t a whole lot to get excited about here.
11. White Whale
The final track plays as a more conventional ballad – simpler rhythm, more of a steady build to its climax, more discernible verse/chorus/bridge type structure, and a literary analogy at its heart that anyone who has ever read or even been passingly aware of the novel Moby Dick will understand. Actual, unconditional love is Higgs’ “White Whale” here – the thing he relentlessly pursues despite being a flawed and sometimes vindictive person who admits he hasn’t been the best example of it. It could be about a relationship between two people, or – if taken as the conclusion to everything the album has discussed so far – a wish for society in general to give this whole “peace and love” thing more of an honest try. It’s an admirable message, though I have to say the presentation of it isn’t as creative as I would have hoped for given how well the band has expressed their ideas throughout the rest of the record. Probably my favorite part of this one is the guitar tremolo and the chorus of backing vocals that come in to support the refrain, “Never tell me that we can’t go further!” This feels like it wants to transition into something truly epic and mind-blowing, but it backs down a bit too early for that, leaving the last half minute or so to faintly echo a melody and chord structure that weren’t distinctive enough and didn’t really stick around enough to have the impact that the band was probably hoping for.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Night of the Long Knives $2
Can’t Do $1.75
Big Game $1.25
Good Shot, Good Soldier $1.50
Run the Numbers $1.50
Put Me Together $1.25
A Fever Dream $1.25
Ivory Tower $1.75
New Deep $0
White Whale $.50
Jonathan Higgs: Lead vocals, keyboards, rhythm guitar
Alex Robertshaw: Lead guitar, keyboards, backing vocals
Jeremy Pritchard: Bass, keyboards, backing vocals
Michael Spearman: Drums, backing vocals
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: