There’s a moment at the end of “Warm Healer”, the closing track from Everything Everything’s third album Get to Heaven (2015), where suddenly it’s as if the lights dim along with the sound. “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 entropying mellotron strings, beginning a dark descent into the depths… And so we arrive, segueing perfectly into the 2017 album, A Fever Dream.
Hailed by critics as a masterpiece, it was intriguing to see what angle the Manchester art-pop quartet found after the release of Get to Heaven, which contended with the unrelenting horror of 2014-15’s rolling news cycle, which saw a new wave of terrorist attacks in Europe, the so-called Islamic State harnessing the once-Utopian platforms of the world wide web for their own appalling propaganda purposes, and the unashamedly divisive rise of populist politicians wreaking havoc with the established order. What resulted was a set of blisteringly energetic songs that evaluated cults of personality, ideas of power and agency, the widening chasms 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 immediate release to date.
The record aims to replicate the perplexingly dream-like state of confusion many in the western world are feeling right now, “the feeling that’s been slowly swamping everybody for the past couple of years” (DrownedInSound in-depth, 16 August 2017) 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 at a more personal level. 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…?”, Higgs asks again and again on “New Deep”, as the eerie sounds of unseen footsteps, decelerating trains, and sunken station chimes carries listeners 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 Everything Everything has done, with the lithe tech-funk and searing walls of sound on opener “Night of the Long Knives” kicking off a six-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 in a 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 bellow-able choruses to date. It’s 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’s 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 targets in amusingly condescending terms; “you think we’re fooled… / …but we are not fooled”. Fighting fire with fire, Higgs employs the puerile language of keyboard warriors to deliver some inspired put-downs such as “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”. Tor one of their biggest riffs since the Led Zep thrill of “Suffragette Suffragette” first ripped through listeners’ minds on debut album Man Alive (2010), its ham-fisted, humongous, like a drunk attempting a Three-point turn in a monster truck in a packed suburban cul-de-sac. The all-American flypast fanfare of Alex Robertshaw’s solo suggests one spray-tanned target in particular for Higgs’ jibes…
In interviews, Robertshaw has talked about how he and co-writer Higgs felt drawn to the records they listened to as teenagers, citing early Warp Records releases from Aphex Twin, Autechre and Boards 0f Canada — “the kinds of things that got me excited about making music in the first place” (everything-everything.co.uk) — and it is this latter outfit that springs to mind upon hearing 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 them, 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 reinforce this feeling, creeping stealthily in, shadow-like, over soft keys and drum machines as tidy and peculiarly arranged as estranged neighbours’ lawns.
This sense of detachment from one another 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 relentlessly in a breathless Bloc Party-meets-junglist frenzy as a lurching prog riff grows every 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 in the newsfeed — whinging Remoaners, 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’s goose-bump inducing stuff.
It’s this newly surreal atmosphere, beguiling as it is unnerving, that marks the band’s chief tangent on A Fever Dream. In 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 record seems unified by an alluring sonic ghoulishness that does much to make album number four sound as complete a conceptual piece as Everything Everything has done to date, evoking a world whose comforts and safety we have taken for granted, as all the old certainties slip through our fingers.
Thanks to unseen Gregorian chanting, the rattling of chains, scuffled footsteps and the creaking of doors, you will wonder if people are behind you, have come in through your door — the effect is subtle, barely perceptible, but all the more unsettling for it. 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…” (Higgs and Robertshaw discuss influences, everything-everything.co.uk) Total submersion into this uncanny, Escher-esque labyrinth comes towards the end of movingly hypnotic title track “A Fever Dream”, a novel foray into ambient techno that pulses like an incessant alarm clock that’s beyond one’s reach; a tirade of cymbals subside, leaving yawning 808 bass and the refrain, corrupted and glitching, spiralling off in all directions. Something has gone decidedly askew, and like a frog in slowly heating water, only when it is too late do we realise how long we’ve been under…
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 toned-down slightly. In its place, however, comes an efficient clarity, as exemplified on the aforementioned “New Deep”, which begins as if a grandiose elegy might be underway before being cut surprisingly short. In just two 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 tidy language doesn’t preclude the variety of subject matter the band have made their mission. For example, racial tension and the anti-immigration backlash rears up in “Night of the Long Knives”, as Higgs tackles the anxieties of hearing far-right party supporters blithely taunt “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”.
In 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, thus allowing readers to better understand the increasingly polarised online bubbles we create for ourselves. In contrast to the very specific outrages Higg’s felt expressed in “Get to Heaven”, the genius of the carefully managed language on A Fever Dream generates its own ambiguity, allowing for a whole host of lyrics that can be “heard” from both sides of the political divide. While Higgs yelps “I don’t need to run the numbers!” on the track “Big Game”, this could be as much the mantra of anti-capitalist Occupy activists, as that of the politicians who infamously declared “we’ve had enough of experts” in the run-up to Brexit. “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 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, there’s some small comfort found in that we have Everything Everything 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.