Everything Everything: A Fever Dream review – nerdish pop for a troubled planet

The Manchester math-rock band’s idea of political pop is a singular, anxiety-pulsing vision. But its inventiveness is welcome

The geeks may not have inherited the earth quite yet, but they’ve certainly colonised great swaths of the pop culture landscape. Alongside comic book-saturated cinema, fantasy-friendly TV shows and bookish comedy kings are the pale and awkward squad who double as the world’s biggest rock stars – the likes of Radiohead, Coldplay, Muse and Arcade Fire, shifting records and ruling festival bills.

Yet a stranger subset of nerd-rock has emerged over recent years. It stems from the turn of the decade, when the hordes of swaggering indie lads began to disperse, making way for something more brainy, ambitious and less concerned with cool. Bands who came across as individual oddbods, such as Foals, Alt-J, Wild Beasts and Glass Animals, were actually bound together, often by outlandish, high-pitched vocals, intuition-defying rhythms, multi-layered melodies and comically bizarre imagery. Much of their music was derived from math-rock (one of the nerdiest subgenres, needless to say), and they paid tribute to the internet age by recreating the resulting information overload in sonic form.

As their name suggests, Manchester’s Everything Everything were always especially concerned with the latter – their 2010 debut Man Alive saw vocalist Jonathan Higgs chatter in double time about everything from Iraq to Photoshop over a tapestry of erratic beats and barbershop harmonies. For their fourth record, however, the bringers of maximalist mayhem return with a more singular thematic focus. So singular in fact, that it’s led them to add another anorakish trope to their arsenal: A Fever Dream could easily qualify as a concept album.

The setting is the populism-fuelled nightmare that is the present day, a place so teeming with surreal political upheavals and clownish leaders that it has Higgs wondering “how did we get here, and how do we leave?” on the title track. The album sees him dart between the characters whose hatred and hope make up this strange new world: on Big Game, he is sickened by a leader who can only be Trump, finding new ways to be revolted by the “bovine balloon” as “witless and rank as a fat-filled hole”; on Desire he embodies a certain class of Brexiteer, “a pencil-pusher with the pencil-pusher blues” who has nothing to lose. On Good Shot, Good Soldier, he’s a blinkered moralist, on Can’t Do, he’s a quivering mess. There are references to bombs and to Waitrose. Throughout, there’s a sense that the world’s horrors have escaped their far-flung homes and invaded hitherto sheltered lives.

While other attempts to convert the political climate into pop (a category that is admittedly largely limited to Katy Perry’s recent eye-watering take on the zeitgeist) have elicited snorts of derision, A Fever Dream is more likely to prompt anxious sweating. This might not be an album to kick back, relax and bury your head in the sand to – it is as much rock opera as traumatic event – but the band’s deep dive into this undercurrent of fear and loathing feels necessary, as if they’re hauling the elephant in the room on to the coffee table.

And it’s not all stomach-churning stuff. Sonically, the band are able to offer a sliver of solace – not so much by toning down their antic groove, but by bringing palliative pop melodies to the fore. Night of the Long Knives might centre on the sound of a falling bomb, but the ambiguous horror is tempered with umpteen earwormy hooks. Big Game, meanwhile, sees the band morph into a glam-rock Radiohead, stirring bombastic guitar licks and theatrical vocals into Thom Yorke and co’s fiddly-to-transcendent sound; the combination of eerie beauty and kitchen-sink rock converting the vitriolic verses into something strangely joyful.

Yet, at other points the band’s pop nous seems a bit too much like compromise. When a big, basic chorus blunders in on otherwise startlingly inventive tracks it can feel counterintuitive. On Desire, the playground chant of the title is an unwelcome intrusion into a song that sounds variously like U2 doing math-rock, a pixellated waterfall of synth, and a choir of dour middle managers taking part in a musical. Can’t Do, meanwhile, boasts glitchy New Order-style basslines and hissing drums, but the star attraction is another gratingly repetitive titular refrain.

If this is Everything Everything’s concession to the mainstream, it’s understandable. The band, who have unfairly spent their career lingering on the sidelines of substantial success, cannot easily be boiled down to a sellable proposition – too odd for the dead-eyed charts, too brazen and obvious for chin-stroking tastemakers. But they don’t need to dumb down, not even in the name of a catchy chorus or a more comprehensible cool. In its subtler, more sophisticated moments, A Fever Dream is an astounding album: anxiety-inducing, perhaps, but also appropriate. Everything Everything might struggle to fit into the music scene as it currently stands, but if pop culture continues on its dorky course, it will be only a matter of time before these nerds rule.


Rachel Aroesti

The GuardianTramp

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