When Alt-J were announced as last year’s Mercury Prize winners, there must have been more than a few people who wondered whether Everything Everything were unlucky not to have already benefited from a similar break. The qualities exhibited on Alt-J’s debut An Awesome Wave were, after all, more than evocative of those that Man Alive had in spades when being nominated for the same award, a year earlier.
In any case, if that struck a raw nerve for anyone other than this reviewer, then Everything Everything’s follow up could not be more timely in reminding that the Manchester four-piece were – of course – never going to be out of the spotlight for long. Just two weeks into the New Year, it seems that the band’s second album is destined to spend 2013 soaring above most other releases the next 12 months will produce, and establish Everything Everything as one of the very brightest lights in UK music.
Where Man Alive’s versatile creativity and vivid melodies, intricate and peculiar structures left off back in 2010, so Arc opens in a similar fashion. Cough Cough, the album’s lead single, already seems a footnote now the full length record is here, but its rolling drum patterns and spidery synths pull the listener in from the get go. “I’m coming alive / I’m happening now”, urges Jonathon Higgs, and god, you think, so am I.
Even with some sonic familiarity however, there are suggestions that Arc will be a wholly different prospect, and this only becomes clearer as it progresses. ‘Maturing’ into a second album can occasionally be levelled as an accusation at a band, and though Man Alive does seem to have a playfulness about it in retrospect, Everything Everything haven’t left any of their creativity at the door. On Arc, though, their powers have been channelled into ensuring that the always impressive songwriting fuses into an equally impressive, and cohesive, record.
Take Armourland’s stuttering R’n’B groove and electro-ballad chorus, or Radiant, its gleaming guitar riff reminiscent of Dirty Projectors twirling atop stadium rock drums: these songs seem somehow… straightforward. Elsewhere, too, the complexity of past tracks like Photoshop Handsome is eschewed for what is almost melancholia: The House is Dust hums with TV on the Radio style sobriety, its reflective stocktaking on divorce and displacement eventually breaking down into Higgs’s vocal and lone piano.
But, don’t misunderstand: the genius of Man Alive was the kinetic intensity by which its myriad ideas were propelled. These songs, and Arc at large, instead have an intensity of mind, a depth of feeling despite or because of the comparative lightness of touch employed on this record. Arc, be in no doubt, is all the better for this evolution.
This is not to say that Everything Everything have turned into Coldplay. At sudden moments, just the direction in which a vocal melody twists is enough to hint at the detail, the structure and chords being employed. Undrowned, one of the album’s central tracks, shouldn’t even work: its ding-dong melody and interlocking guitars build like some sort of menacing nursery rhyme as the words become more and more despairing. But as a track it’s fantastic, hugely dark, yet retaining a naivety that endures as Higgs cries at the death: “Don’t let me down!” Kemosabe, the recent single, also sparkles with typical ingenuity, the chorus sending twinkling keyboard drops into a galactic vacuum that echoes and warms with that trademark vocal.
We should touch on that voice. This second album isn’t about him, and nor is this ‘his band’, but where Jonathan Higgs’s free-flowing falsetto previously seemed just an element of the Everything tapestry, on Arc the vocals demand your full attention. Many other reviews are already hailing the difference, and with good reason; though the words at times still border on the nonsensical – how’s “I could be the dolphin of your dreams” for a line – Higgs’s voice is now assured of its place front and centre of this record. More measured, more intense and less incidental, these vocals are the validation of this album’s ambition: to give real meaning to each of the band’s songs, even while that latent spark of quirky brilliance flickers among the backdrops.
And each of the songs could stand out for different reasons: the pounding drums of Feet for Hands promise an explosive change of direction that never comes, yet there is more than enough satisfaction in the rumbling bass line and cascade of guitar notes towards the song’s end. The ghostly Choice Mountain glugs with music box chords punctured by eerily in-tune train whistles; The Peaks is one long breath, its cyclical piano chords taunting chart-busting stadium balladry while it gathers the energy to suddenly blaze up like a match catching in slow motion.
When album closer Don’t Try brings things full circle, regimented snare hits recalling Arc’s opening moments, by now it’s understood that we’re a world away from the Everything Everything of three years ago. Their debut might have been a masterclass in eye-catching songcraft, yet here there is the very real sense that, having kept a firmer hand on the reigns, the four songwriters have been afforded the space they need to realise their music as art, and it’s exactly as they intended it to sound. Arc succeeds in marrying the band’s relentless flair for musical ideas with a new maturity that has given them the confidence to believe in the power of their bigger ideas, and not feel a need to cram genre-defying twists and turns into three minute montages. As a result, this is likely to be one of the albums of 2013. Contrary to its title though, Arc shows no sign that Everything Everything will be coming down to Earth any time soon.