To put it in the corniest possible terms, artistic progression can be a stairway to heaven or a slippery slope. The Beatles in the 1960s, David Bowie in the ‘70s and Prince in the ‘80s are gold standards of artists leading audiences to places they didn’t know they wanted to go — occasionally alienating fans and making the odd misstep but confidently charging forward, following the muse with self-awareness and self-assurance that it would all make sense in the end. Of course, the line between a beckoning hand and a middle finger is a fine one: Neil Young’s all-electronic album “Trans” and U2’s irony-laden “Pop” are classic examples of the muse leading the artist toward (if not over) a cliff.
The situation gets even more complicated when one of the world’s biggest rock bands seemingly grows tired of being a rock band — witness U2 in the 1990s and Radiohead in the early 2000s — which is apparently where Montreal’s Arcade Fire finds itself with its fifth album (and first through Columbia), “Everything Now.” Produced by the band with Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter, Pulp’s Steve Mackey and longtime associate Markus Dravs, it finds the group pushing against the boundaries of its template, trying on various styles — mutations of ‘70s pop, R&B, even dancehall — that sometimes work gloriously but often hang awkwardly on their anthemic sound like an ill-fitting new outfit (especially frontman Win Butler’s awkward attempts at rapping).
Yet if the only fruit of this collaboration were the album’s sparkling title track, it would have been worthwhile. A blatant tribute to Abba’s “Dancing Queen” (with a little bit of Yvonne Elliman’s disco-era hit “If I Can’t Have You” thrown in), it’s gilt and glittering and gorgeous, with a soaring, piano-driven hook and a swooning orchestra underpinning the surprisingly restrained verses. Sublime and sumptuous, it’s one of the year’s best singles.
Elsewhere, the fast and manic “Infinite Content” recalls the band’s shout-along earlier material before it segues abruptly into an acoustic arrangement reminiscent of their 2010 album “The Suburbs”; “Put Your Money on Me” combines a pulsing electronic bassline with a chorus that also evokes latter-day Abba; the closing “We Don’t Deserve Love” is a haunting ballad with a cascading keyboard melody loping over gentle acoustic guitars.
However, the forays into new terrain largely fall flat. “Signs of Life” starts off like an early ‘70s funk song (a la The Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”) with handclaps and a driving bassline and a distance police siren, then morphs into an ‘80s funk workout that recalls Blondie’s “Rapture,” with some spectacularly stiff rapping from Butler. “Creature Comfort” begins promisingly with a hot, buzzing beat but is marred by unsettling lyrics apparently about a suicide (“Some girls cut themselves, saying, ‘God, make me famous. If you can’t, just make it painless’”). “Electric Blue” has a strong groove and a zooming bassline but is hobbled by a screechy lead vocal from keyboardist Regine Chassagne. And the nadir comes with “Chemistry,” which has an awkward dancehall lilt in the beat and horns, a singsong melody and, heaven help us, more rapping.
“Everything Now” is the uncomfortable fusion that many feared Arcade Fire’s last one — 2013’s sprawling “Reflektor,” a collaboration with dance-rock avatar James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem — would be. But where that album found Murphy integrating a beefier bottom into the group’s familiar sound, this collaboration is a trickier fit. While the production throughout the album is stunning and Bangalter’s fingerprints abound — from the pulsating rhythm tracks reminiscent of Daft Punk’s recent work with The Weeknd to the soaring string arrangements that are a hallmark of their 2013 Grammy Album of the Year winner, “Random Access Memories” — the irony and deep references inherent in Daft Punk and Pulp’s work jars against Arcade Fire’s ingrained earnestness; the elaborate electronic rhythms clash with their anthemic, large-print hooks; and humor is a hat that this band wears uneasily. It would have been far worse had Arcade Fire played it safe — yet it remains to be seen whether this challenging and potentially polarizing album will inspire their rabid fanbase to follow pied-piper style, or resist like a dog being dragged to the vet.