Album review: Everything Everything: Arc

Everything Everything are hard to pin down. Picture: Petrus Olsson
Everything Everything are hard to pin down. Picture: Petrus Olsson
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RELEASING an album in the quiet early weeks of January used to be a surefire way of being overlooked; now it is a shrewd strategic move to get the jump on your peers and secure maximum attention for your latest opus during the post-New Year lull.

Everything Everything: Arc RCA Victor, £12.99

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Last year, The Maccabees bagged the coveted slot with the thoroughly overrated Given To The Wild and, lo, it was still acclaimed by the end of 2012.

This year, Everything Everything are the ones jockeying for an advantageous position. Despite being mentioned in all the right dispatches three years ago – BBC Sound of 2010 poll, a spot on the NME tour – music punters didn’t really get this cerebral Mancunian quartet with their bespoke eclectic tastes and stated desire to avoid sounding like their peers. They came across as a bit too contrived and clever for their own good, as if the decision to dress in matching boiler suits had been taken before any songs had been written.

By their own admission, their debut album Man Alive was “a bit elitist” and, in the course of a year of touring, it became apparent that they were not connecting with audiences as completely as they would have liked. Their response has been to make a non-difficult second album on which they rein in their tendency to over-embroider with everything (everything) but the kitchen sink. Support slots on arena tours with Snow Patrol and Muse have provided an opportunity to road test a more direct approach to songwriting. “We want more people to like the new songs more quickly,” they say, with encouraging simplicity.

So it’s out with alienating the listener and in with appealing to them – radical, huh? Frontman Jonathan Higgs – a man who has freely admitted that “all I think about really is the dawn of man and the end of man” – has made it his mission not to sing so high and so fast, like a “gabbling mad man”.

That said, he does still sound a little breathless, hectic and disjointed on album opener Cough Cough, which manages to be both quirky and playful with its stuttering, half-spoken intro, skittering drums, offbeat harmony vocals, proggy synthesizers and all-important melodic hookline. The song compares the lure of money to an inexorable sci-fi virus which infects even the most well-meaning, as summed up by the line “there’s something wrong – but it’s okay if we’re getting paid”.

There are shades of Bloc Party in the epic angst of Torso of the Week. Higgs really sells the song with his soaring vocal and gives a similarly cathartic performance on Undrowned. However, despite the newfound drive for accessibility, his delivery and lyrics don’t always lend themselves to such painless interpretation. Current single Kemosabe is melodically surefooted but makes a meal out of the trials and conflicts of a relationship – if, indeed, that is what is meant by “our war is the crucible of all your longing” and other abstruse pronouncements.

With its dramatic strings and cascading vocals, Duet (with Higgs singing both parts) is the first blatant stadium pop overture of the album. In contrast, Choice Mountain is too self-conscious with its Afro arpeggios and chiming harmonium. But they do succeed in bringing together the experimental and the elegant on Armourland, a love song with a siege mentality (“I want to take you home and hold you till we die”), inspired by the 2011 riots, which jumps off the blocks with an old school hip-hop break before opening out into a graceful, expansive chorus, and again on The House Is Dust, a vulnerable ballad they wanted to record “as live as possible – and as pissed as possible”, which teams a doomy, almost gothic clang with a soft, soulful vocal and a plangent guitar sound you could float away on.

Where before they tried a bit too hard to be idiosyncratic, Everything Everything sound more at ease with themselves on Arc. They may lack the irresistible groove or humour of their contemporaries Django Django, who have really nailed the balance between experimental and entertaining, but they do pull off something closer in spirit to an angular Alt-J.

The influence of Radiohead looms heavily too, though it is hard to imagine another band achieving that level of success with such a single-minded leftfield approach.

Of the material on offer here, Radiant is probably EE’s best shot at commercial crossover. Hanging on a huge chiming riff and yet more proggy arpeggios, it’s the most immediately commanding song on the album, along with the bright modern pop of Don’t Try.