Ditching the look-at-us songwriting of their debut, the future pop of the second album points to good times ahead
In his 2005 book The Singularity Is Near, the American futurologist Ray Kurzweil posits that humanity is approaching a tipping point where the exponential growth of our scientific know-how will change us as a species. Between now and the year 2100, it’s estimated that we’ll undergo 20,000 years’ worth of technological advances. He predicts a world in which $1,000 will buy a computer a billion times more intelligent than every human brain combined; where we overcome the limitations of biology by uploading our minds onto the internet; where we are so integrated with technology that we become transhuman.
Sounds like a blast, right? Well, not if you’re Everything Everything’s Jonathan Higgs, who, armed with an ingrained British pessimism and a working knowledge of the Terminator franchise, has a very different take on Kurzweil’s theories – namely that, “We’re totally fuuuucccckkked!” For a band who are all about progress, that’s an odd proclamation to make. This is the same Everything Everything, remember, who fretted over whether they were being “forward-thinking enough” on their 2010 debut, resulting in a record which went to extraordinary (some might argue, excessive) lengths to prove its authors weren’t your average Mancunian beat combo. ‘Man Alive’ sought to bedazzle us with weird polyrhythms and look-at-us! songwriting, but ‘Arc’ is a different proposition: more focused, more restrained, less prone to tangential distractions. It’s an incremental leap rather than an exponential one, if you want to couch it in those terms, but it’s founded on a jarring contradiction: pop’s young futurists have written an album about how terrifying the future is.
The intertwined themes of technology and disconnection are prevalent throughout ‘Arc’. On ‘Cough Cough’, when “that eureka moment hits you like a cop car”, you’re only a heartbeat away from waking up, “just head and shoulders in a glass jar”. Atop the strings of ‘Duet’, meanwhile, Higgs gazes at the “acres of screens before me” and wonders if, like him, “you feel left behind, like there’s something not right?” By the time ‘Radiant’ comes around, he’s imploring us to “Go!/Leave your homes!/Take whatever you can” in the face of some unnamed onrushing cataclysm.
The songwriting on ‘Arc’ reflects this retreat from technophilia. It’s a leaner, more relatable beast than its predecessor, not so determined to clutter up every quiet moment or empty space. Take ‘The House Is Dust’, where Higgs’ falsetto is accompanied by little more than a sparse rhythm track and plinking piano chords, or ‘The Peaks’, which recalls the sonic minimalism and emotional immensity of Sigur Rós. The latter’s refrain – “I’ve seen more villages burn than animals born/I’ve seen more towers come down than children grow up” – provides the album’s natural end-point, though not its actual one; a tracklisting oversight means the frivolous indie-R&B of ‘Don’t Try’ undoes the grandstanding climax.
That, however, doesn’t mar what comes before it. The overt clever-cleverness of ‘Man Alive’ won as many detractors as devotees, but it’s not a charge you can level at ‘Arc’, which – as on the baroque, caustically worded chamber-music of ‘Undrowned’, or the spare, lucid-dream indietronica of ‘Choice Mountain’ – largely knows when to dial back the band’s more show-off tendencies. The self-conscious straining to be regarded as innovators and iconoclasts that occasionally muddled their debut is absent here; this is a record less bothered about surface than it is about feeling.
It’s a comparison that’ll follow them around, but thematically, the album ‘Arc’ has most in common with is ‘OK Computer’. Yet while Radiohead’s third was a singularity in itself, Everything Everything’s second finds them progressing at a steadier – though no less perceptible – rate. Slowly but surely, they are moving towards something extraordinary.