There is a moment right at the end of Warm Healer, the closing track from Everything Everything’s third album ‘Get To Heaven,’ where suddenly, the lights dim. “You don’t want me sucking you down”, intones frontman Jonathan Higgs as an ominously pulsing bassline does exactly that, his disembodied, pitch-shifted voice warped and shrouded by atrophying mellotron strings, beginning a dark descent into the depths… And so we arrive, segueing perfectly into new album, ‘A Fever Dream’.
Hailed by critics as a masterpiece, finding a new angle was always going to be something of a hurdle for the Manchester art-pop quartet after ‘Get To Heaven’, dealing as it did with the unrelenting horror of 2014-15’s rolling news. A new wave of terrorist attacks in Europe, ISIS harnessing the once-Utopian platforms of the world wide web for their own appalling propaganda purposes, and the unashamedly divisive rise of UKIP and other establishment-rocking populists – all of this found its way into a set of blisteringly energetic songs that encompassed personality cults, ideas of power and agency, the widening schisms in western societies and the responsibility we have for the planet and ourselves. If that vivid, aggressive record was a raging against the dying of the light, we are now decidedly in the dark on ‘A Fever Dream’, Everything Everything’s most surreal yet simultaneously immediate release to date.
The band’s stated aim on this release is less a continuation of ‘Get To Heaven”s themes, more an immersion in the perplexingly dream-like state of confusion that many see as a sign of the times, “The feeling that’s been slowly swamping everybody for the past couple of years” as Higgs has described. If ‘Get To Heaven’ was a kaleidoscopic polemic, ‘A Fever Dream’ is a tone poem with an altogether darker flavour, with the focus this time around on a more personal level than perhaps before. The former’s wilfully subversive dancefloor breeziness in songs like Spring / Sun / Winter / Dread and Get To Heaven is replaced by a creeping sense that things are not quite as they seem, that somehow our reality isn’t necessarily to be trusted. “Is there something wrong with all this / Or is there something wrong with me…?”, he asks again and again on New Deep, as the eerie sounds of unseen footsteps, decelerating trains and sunken station chimes find us firmly through the looking glass. That’s not to say that paranoia pervades – the opening half of this record is as sonically and melodically exuberant as anything they’ve ever done, with the lithe tech-funk and searing walls of sound on opener Night Of The Long Knives kicking off a 6 song run that is as exhilarating as it is disconcerting.
Lead single Can’t Do has an irresistible brawny swagger, and its luminous, hands-in-the-air EDM stabs would almost be enough to convince you that you were having the time of your life during peak time in some big-room rave – though graveyard moog lines, haunting backing vocals and bassist Jeremy Pritchard’s grungy lurch suggest squalid goings-on in the dark corners of a fetish-club masquerade. Likewise, the 6/8 glam rock bombast of Desire delivers one of the band’s most bellowable choruses to date, a paint-by-numbers radio-friendly anthem perhaps, but one splashed in acids rather than watercolour – synths lash rather than uplift, basslines seethe rather than support – there is a menace in the sound, and yet, you find yourself uncontrollably punching the air.
Big Game reserves its ire for alt-right trolls and lowest-common-denominator power-grabbers, addressing its intended targets in amusingly condescending terms: “You think we’re fooled… / …but we are not fooled”. Fighting fire with fire, Higgs trades playground slander with keyboard warriors to deliver some inspired put-downs – “Witless and rank as a fat-filled hole”, “Ever so small but you think it’s big”, “Someone’s gonna pull your big trousers down, and I think you might explode”. Then for one of their biggest riffs since the Led Zep thrill of Suffragette Suffragette first ripped through listeners’ minds on debut album Man Alive – it is ham-fisted, humongous, like a drunk attempting a 3-point turn in a monster truck. The all-American flypast fanfare of Alex Robertshaw’s solo suggests one spray-tanned target in particular for Higgs’ jibes…
Admirers of the bizarre, verbose lyrical style that Everything Everything are known for will find much to enjoy in the colourful venom of Ivory Tower (“Do you know what makes me happy? / When I clothe you in a swarm of bees”), though elsewhere things seem comparatively restrained on this record. In its place, however, comes an efficient clarity, as exemplified on New Deep, which begins feeling like a grandiose elegy might be underway before being cut surprisingly short. In just 2 lines, Higgs verbalises the question everyone must be asking themselves – “Is there something wrong with all this, or is there something wrong with me” – what more is there to add?
Though this tidiness of language does not preclude the variety of subject matter the band have made their mission – racial tension and the anti-immigration backlash rears its head on Night Of The Long Knives as Higgs tackles the anxieties of far-right party supporters, blithely taunting “shame about your neighbourhood”. The theme of divinely-sanctioned power play first touched upon in The Wheel (Is Turning Now) reappears in Good Shot Good Soldier‘s playfully problematic moralising – “If I’m wrong then strike me down / If I’m right then light my way”. Though for all the palpable scorn in some of his sentiments, Higgs seems to refrain from pointing fingers at any one group – when Higgs yelps “I don’t need to run the numbers!” on the track of the same name, this could be as much the mantra of anti-capitalist Occupy activists as the politicians who infamously declared “We’ve had enough of experts” in the run-up to Brexit. During 2016, the Wall Street Journal launched a refreshingly even-handed website called Blue Feed, Red Feed, showing social media users both liberal and conservative news feeds side by side, and Higgs’ knowingly ambiguous language comes close to recreating this. “Can you see it through all our eyes?” is the refrain sung on Good Shot Good Soldier, and with this album, perhaps we’re closer to doing so.
In interviews, Robertshaw has talked about how he felt drawn to the records he and his fellow band-mates listened to as teenagers, citing early Warp Records releases from Aphex Twin, Autechre and Boards Of Canada – “The kinds of things that got me excited about making music in the first place” – and it is this latter outfit that springs to mind on mid-album turning point Put Me Together. Over the kind of anodyne, synthetically bland wallpaper music you could almost imagine customising Sims to, Higgs sings of the people we live our lives surrounded by, without ever truly getting to know, and the paranoia that can breed in such suburban anonymity – “What do you mean you don’t know me…?” . All the while, quietly unsettling synths and hallucinatory vocal samples creep stealthily in, shadow-like, over soft keys and drum machines as tidy and peculiarly arranged as estranged neighbours’ lawns.
This sense of detachment we have from each other and how we seem to increasingly regard each other as strangers crops up again and again: “We all make a vacuum / We all made a vacuum for this…” Higgs coos on Ivory Tower, the album’s luridly ultra-violent, climactic flash point. Drummer Mike Spearman thrashes unrelentingly in a breathless Bloc Party-meets-junglist frenzy as a lurching prog riff grows ever more malevolent, cresting and plunging like a container ship riding a tsunami. “We didn’t think that it would happen and we never will” comes the falsetto cry of a public taken aback by each bizarre twist of the newsfeed – whinging Remainers, anti-Trump Reps and Dems, and if developments on the Korean peninsula at the time of writing are to be taken seriously, CND campaigners… Above these grim thrills, Robertshaw’s guitar shimmers like a film noir vibraphone, conjuring crime scenes and alarm bells ringing in the distance. It is goose-bump inducing stuff.
And it’s this newly surreal atmosphere, beguiling as it is unnerving, that marks the band’s chief tangent on A Fever Dream. Whether it’s the glassy, uncanny-valley Vaporwave synths on Good Shot Good Soldier, the jabbering, brainzap vocal splices in the breakdown of Ivory Tower, or the distant choir of lost souls that recedes into nothingness in the coda of White Whale [putting this reviewer in mind of Gustav Holst’s Neptune, the Mystic] – these 11 tracks seems unified by an alluring sonic ghoulishness that does much to make album #4 sound as complete a conceptual piece as they’ve done to date, evoking a world whose comforts and safety we appear to have taken for granted, as all the old certainties seem to be slipping through our fingers.
Higgs states – “One thing I felt drawn to a lot was a sense of place – we listen to OK Computer a lot, and there’s always this ambience in the background that makes you feel like you’re somewhere, rather than listening to a band in a studio – it’s subtle sometimes, but we’ve littered the record with these ambient recordings that we made around Liverpool, just to give you a sense that it’s not so clean, that you could be somewhere new…” Total submersion into this uncanny, Escher-esque labyrinth of sound comes towards the end of movingly hypnotic title track A Fever Dream, a novel foray into ambient techno that pulses like an alarm clock unreachably far away; a tirade of jump scare cymbals subside, leaving yawning 808 bass and the refrain, corrupted and glitching, spiralling off in all directions. Something has gone unmistakably askew, and like a frog in slowly heating water, only when it is too late do we realise how long we’ve been under…
In spite of all this anxiety, the bleakly romantic White Whale closes out the album with an unexpected note of optimism, its dark ceremony blossoming into an awe-inspiring wide shot that is as much a tribute to their beloved Radiohead as it is a strangely inspiring evocation of our world in all its chaotic, dreadful majesty – while one might be tempted to hear “Never tell me that we can’t go further” as a cynical warning of all that the worst of mankind is still capable of, Higgs seems to be throwing down the gauntlet to a species whose reach, if we could only learn to heal our divisions, might be infinite. If, for now, we truly are tumbling down the rabbit hole, it is some small comfort that we have Higgs et al. along to help us make sense of it. “Maybe the worst is over…” he sings – it doesn’t seem likely, but we can dare to dream.
‘A Fever Dream’ is out now via RCA Victor. Listen on Spotify here.