By Chris Fry (@chrisryanfry)
It’s an ambitious title, isn’t it?
For a band that trades in sonic insanity; manic falsettos, huge synths and a mad scientist approach to genre, this sets up a lot of expectation. Or maybe, it’s a sly little boast. Everything Everything’s sound you might expect has other bands ripped out of their sleep in the middle of the night, slick with sweat.
But no, the album isn’t itself so much of a fever dream as about one. The disaster year 2016 and its dragged out sequel cast a long shadow over the album as it does for the rest of us. Trump, Brexit and the surrounding imps of modern politics (post-truth, refugee crises, the alt-right, etc.) are dominant themes and set A Fever Dream as their most consistent album lyrically and thematically. While it is, as usual, an intriguing joy to hear Higgs’ take on the world and his rapid-fire abstract lyrics, by now every man and his dog has said their piece on the alternate reality we’ve slipped into, so it’s maybe a little late.
These themes are introduced with incredible subtlety in the opening track, Night of the Long Knives. Blatant song title aside, it plays much the same role as To The Blade does for Get To Heaven, a teasing lowkey intro, sounding like a news programme intro theme after a few kicks to the head, before blasting itself open, this time with a massive droning synth.
However, it’s time to address the fact – this album is frontloaded, and split into Everything Everything’s dual personalities. The first half is big, bold and maximal, and packed with 2 of the 3 singles: Can’t Do and Desire, leaving the less conventional title track to the back half where it belongs. Can’t Do is the band at their most radio-friendly, full of bright, dancey synths and shoutable lyrics that show a bit of easy postmodernism: a song about writer’s block. Desire is the single you’d expect and the most obvious choice, a crystallised form of their sound as much as there can be one.
The first half continues to hit hard on a couple tracks with a surprising return of the riff. If there’s any sign of Everything Everything’s unconventionality, then it’s the fact that for an all-white all-male four-piece, a guitar riff comes as a shock. They’re jerky, staccato perversions of riffs that largely echo the belting chorus of the first album’s Suffragette Suffragette, although more tastefully done.
Big Game starts as a brief break in intensity, Higgs’ falsetto sweeping over with Trump-baiting lyrics, ‘wrinkled little boxing glove’, until the two-minute mark, cutting to harmonies over a simple arpeggio and then breaking into one of the album’s “big riffs”. The other riff, slightly more conventional, rules Run the Numbers, a ballsy tribute to the “had-enough-of-experts” mindset.
Good Shot, Good Soldier, or the break that Big Game pretended to be, is unfortunately lost between these two tracks, booting an average song down to “weakest on the album” territory.
Put Me Together rounds out the other side of Brexit, an obituary of sorts for the victims of post-Brexit hatred – ‘there’s somebody washing the car and there’s / somebody watching the children / but they’re nothing like you and me.’ The song also rings in the album’s second half and Everything Everything’s other personality. Softer, slower, the complexities becoming more gentle hypnosis than blunt trauma. Running into the last single and title track, A Fever Dream whirls around a central piano melody on a slow descent into chaos, the recurring piano anchoring the song around its intricate rhythms and shifting soundscape.
Ivory Tower follows up with a declaration against keyboard warfare, dragging the album back to the urgency of its first half. The pre-chorus ‘We didn’t think that it would happen and it never will´ reaffirming the album’s theme of a world watching itself veer out of control. New Deep dips back into the dream with a blanket of hypnotic sound, undercut with the sound of someone getting out of a car in the wind.
The album closes with White Whale, a delicate, if slightly obsessive, love song that just after two minutes, explodes into squealing guitar. It comes back, all delicateness swept aside, the sweet ‘Never tell me that we can’t go further’ reframed as sinister chanting. It has to be said though, a Moby Dick reference feels way too easy.
The main flaw of the album is where it sits in the discography. Their sound, raw and punky in Man Alive, was refined in Arc and polished even further in Get To Heaven. And while A Fever Dream is solid on its own, it is starting to feel like more of the same. It’s a paradox, but the eclectic and unpredictable sound is starting to become predictable.
Maybe the best way to describe it is like a twitch. The first time is exciting, your body jolting against it, the shock of a new thing. And for a time, it keeps up interest, it snaps you to attention with each spasm. You interrogate yourself as it happens in new ways, interrupting your sentences and getting featured on Radio One. Then the pleasant discomfort turns, and it becomes a little bit routine, just another thing.
This doesn’t damn A Fever Dream, but the album should maybe mark a turning point for Everything Everything; a good moment to start experiment and freshening up their sound. The next album will cast A Fever Dream as either the pretty knot tied around the first chapter of their career or the beginning of the end. Now, this isn’t saying they should do their own OK Computer but it is strongly hinting towards it. Either that, or this just might become their Only By The Night.
All that aside, A Fever Dream sits pretty comfortably with the rest of their so-far excellent output; the madness distilled down to the most coherent it’ll get, without compromising itself.