Everything Everything: Get to Heaven review – prog-pop eccentrics sounding too clever by half

From deeply beautiful to spectacularly irritating, Everything Everything’s third album captures the sensory overload of modern life all too well

Is there a more improbable bromance in modern rock than that between the compilers of the Radio 1 playlist and Everything Everything? After all, despite their stated aim to make music that doesn’t “sound like a lot of things you’ve heard before” and their talk about the influence contemporary R&B exerts upon them, Everything Everything exist in an eccentric, very British musical tradition. You could trace the lineage of their cluttered, fidgety sound back through the Cardiacs’ lonely attempt to introduce tricky time signatures and shrill vocals into 80s indie; via XTC in their early, bug-eyed, herky-jerky incarnation; to progressive rock: listeners of a certain vintage and inclination may find that Everything Everything’s music occasionally reminds them of Yes circa 1980’s Drama, on which the ailing prog titans enlisted Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes of Buggles to give them a contemporary overhaul.

All this, it scarcely needs pointing out, makes them improbable bedfellows for Jason Derulo and Jess Glynne on the airwaves of the Nation’s Favourite. And yet, there they are. For a fortnight in 2013, their single Kemosabe wasn’t just played on Radio 1, it was the most played record on the station, despite its twitchy rhythms, knotty guitar riffs and vocals that kept leaping into a pained falsetto while delivering imponderable lyrics: “What’s a trilobite to anyone?” Earlier this year, Distant Past, the first single from this third album, followed it on to the A-list. It was presumably the only record one heard interrupting the unfailing hilarity of Bamboleo Wednesday and Innuendo Bingo on the Scott Mills show to feature a lyrical reference to Crom, a deity from Robert E Howard’s sagas of the Hyborian Age.

The mention of a God worshipped by Conan the Barbarian notwithstanding, Distant Past sounded marginally less out of place on Radio 1’s A list than its predecessor: the guitars shimmer atmospherically rather than contort around a byzantine math rock-influenced riff, the chorus stirs a vogueish rave breakdown into the sonic mix. Perhaps it – and indeed the presence behind the mixing desk of Stuart Price, producer by appointment to Madonna, Kylie Minogue and Take That – indicates a fresh, commercially inclined approach on their third album. Or perhaps not.

Everything Everything - Distant Past

Their last album, 2013’s Arc, suggested a band in the process of dialing their peculiarities down a little: on My House Is Dust and The Peaks, it seemed to shift Everything Everything’s sound towards the grandiose, lachrymose balladeering of Elbow. Get to Heaven dials things back up again, presumably in order to evoke the information overload of 24-hour rolling news and the vast attendant echo chamber of social media. This is certainly the topic that hangs over the lyrics, which invariably find frontman Jonathan Higgs in front of the latest bulletin, squirming with angst, but unable to tear himself away. “First you see me on the news, then never again, I’m rolling in my grave, feeling like a grenade,” opens Regret, which sounds like it might be about Britons running off to join Isis. “Don’t look the other way,” Higgs sings on Warm Healer, advice he follows even when what he sees defies him not to: on The Wheel (Is Turning Now), he’s confronted by the unlovely sight of Nigel Farage.

And so the listener is confronted with stuff like Blast Doors: guitars playing a riff that sounds like a supremely agitated version of the theme from Knight Rider, hyperactive drumming, bursts of jabbering synthesiser, liberal application of the aforementioned leap into pained falsetto from Higgs. Meanwhile, Warm Healer is based around something you might call a funk riff had it not been pressed into the service of the unfunkiest time signature imaginable. Around it are call-and-response vocals, stuttering electronics and guitar parts that sound like exercises to improve dexterity. There is the synth-heavy Fortune 500, which sounds like someone force-fed Radiohead a load of Haribo. There are moments when absolutely every sound coming out of the speakers appears to be chattering at you.

As you might expect, this is an approach that weaves between bold, fascinating and completely insufferable, often in the course of one song. No Reptiles initially sounds like a piece of music made by people deliberately trying to be as annoying as possible: a scampering, percussive riff, vocals delivered in staccato bursts of hyperspeed babble, a four-to-the-floor house beat reduced to a funkless thud. But it gradually and unexpectedly resolves itself into a really beautiful coda. Odd musical juxtapositions that work spectacularly well – Regret’s curiously captivating melange of Be My Baby drums, massed vocals and frantic guitar – jostle for space with stuff that’s genuinely baffling. The grim spectre of smart-arsey zaniness is ever present, poised to strike. You listen to Zero Pharoah’s opening, decorated with a quite spectacularly irritating electronic noise, or the title track – which offers a guitar dueling with a synthesiser progammed to sound like a marimba, some whistling, and a tiny snatch of high-pitched vocal going “dee-dee-dee!” dropped into the mix willy-nilly – and think: well, what did you do that for? Who clicked “like” on that idea? Why?

Perhaps Get to Heaven actually achieves its aim rather too effectively, evoking the information overload of 24-hour rolling news so well that it essentially provokes the same reaction: it’s often compelling, but you occasionally find yourself gripped by an overwhelming urge to turn it off. That you can ultimately resist that urge is thanks to the band’s pop smarts. Said pop smarts seem to be locked in a constant battle with the band’s desire to remind everyone how clever they are, but at least they’ve got them. For all the teeth-gritting, self-conscious wackiness on display in its opening minutes, the title track has a fantastic chorus. So does almost everything else on Get to Heaven, which might well be the cleverest thing about it.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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