In his rabble-rousing 2007 essay “A Paler Shade of White,” the usually brilliant New Yorker music critic Sasha Frere-Jones took aim at what he described as the lack of “musical miscegenation” practiced by the leading indie rock groups of the day. By “miscegenation,” Frere-Jones meant specifically the co-option of blues-influenced black music rhythms that once had driven rock’s vanguard. As Exhibit A of indie’s drift toward grooveless whiteness, Frere-Jones zeroed in on Montreal’s Arcade Fire.
“As I watched Arcade Fire,” he wrote, “I realized that the drummer and the bassist rarely played syncopated patterns or lingered in the low registers. If there is a trace of soul, blues, reggae, or funk in Arcade Fire, it must be philosophical; it certainly isn’t audible.”
The entire piece was woefully misguided, and a quick glance through Arcade Fire’s discography went a long way toward discrediting it. The band’s music had always been filled with complicated, athletic rhythms, just not necessarily the ones Frere-Jones was looking for. “Rebellion (Lies)” was essentially a prime U2 cut layered over a four-on-the-floor house beat; in the right live setting, “Haiti’s” martial rhythm could flower into full-on revival-tent catharsis; and on “The Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains),” from 2011’s Grammy-winner “The Suburbs,” the band essentially rewrote Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” in its own endearingly square way, with wonderful results.
For its fourth album, the fascinating yet only intermittently successful “Reflektor,” Arcade Fire refutes Frere-Jones’ argument even further by actually taking his advice. Swapping its old open-hearted naiveté and medicine-show aesthetics for driving disco beats and blues-inspired hooks, the band has taken a full dive into dance music. The group recruited former LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy – the John the Baptist of ’00s dance-punk – as a producer for several tracks, recording others in Jamaica with longtime collaborator Markus Dravs. The album, much of it inspired by a concert the band played in Haiti (where co-front person Regine Chassagne’s parents were born), is hardly short on ideas: through a 76-minute runtime, the band tackles everything from the Orpheus myth to the perils of celebrity, the psychological damage of pornography, Kierkegaardian relativism, colonialism and religion.
The melodies are still there, as are several effortlessly anthemic choruses that frontman Win Butler and company couldn’t screw up if they tried, and nothing here is philosophically objectionable. The problem is far more simple: For a record filled with dance grooves, the dour, overstuffed “Reflektor” is rarely ever groovy or danceable.
This sort of feel-bad dance album has a number of illustrious predecessors, from Sly and the Family Stone’s “There’s a Riot Goin’ On” to Talking Heads’ “Fear of Music” and the Rapture’s “Echoes” (also produced by Murphy). But the ability to find a certain sexual, humanistic undertow amid all the fear and loathing requires a very specific sort of detachment and chilliness that couldn’t be further from Arcade Fire’s m.o. This is the kind of band that regularly embraces one another onstage, whose violinist sings along to every song despite being positioned several yards away from the nearest microphone, whose greatest song contains the lyric “light a candle for the kids / Jesus Christ, don’t keep it hid!” Arcade Fire was always cool precisely because the band seemed to exist outside of any sort of paradigm that considered tossed-off, ironic apathy to be an attractive pose. Listening to this same group clamor around a tongue-in-cheek disco ball (“Reflektor”) or craft a po-faced Depeche Mode homage (“Porno”) feels little bit like watching Linus from “Peanuts” throw on a pair of black Ray Bans and a Members Only jacket.
Questionable analogies aside, the band simply doesn’t sound comfortable in its new costumes, and while well-intentioned, its grooves feel ungainly when they need to be slick, plodding and lead-footed where they should be airy and light. Fittingly for a group with seven official members (and several more in their touring cohort), Arcade Fire abhors a vacuum, filling every available bar with all sorts of counterpoints and sonic flourishes. Yet disco-rock rhythms like these thrive on carefully deployed empty space, the gaps and glitches between the beats that a listener can’t resist filling in with bodily movement. Even when they locate a solid, “Billie Jean”-esque bassline on “We Exist,” the group can’t help but complicate things.
Appropriately, “Reflektor” is at its best when it lets the melodies breathe. The stunning “Here Comes the Night Time” – easily the best song on the record, and one of the best in the band’s whole catalog – is obviously informed by the Haitian music that the group encountered on the island, yet it deftly sidesteps mimicry much as the Clash did with their reggae explorations, letting the slow, churning heart of the song dictate the rhythm, rather than trying to cram a melody into a preset structure. “Joan of Arc” is slighter and more straightforward than anything the band has done in the past, and all the better for it. The paradoxically-titled “Awful Sound” contains the most pleasant and tuneful six minutes on the whole record, taking the kind of soaring anthem Coldplay might have written and turning it on its head with some well-employed jazz vamping and conga-laden percussion.
Yet these moments of inspiration are all too fleeting for a record that strives for all-caps statements at the expense of joy and discovery. Two whole tracks of ambient noodling aim to give the record an epic sweep, but only sap it of excitement. Butler’s gripes about rock stardom and alienation quickly grow monotonous, and absent the usual vocal contributions from Chassagne – whose ebullient, girlish singing often serves as a soothing antidote to her husband’s sturm und drang – the record gets mired in long stretches of hectoring that move it even further from the dance-floor.
As far as Arcade Fire may be straying from its personal comfort zone, the band is hardly breaking much new ground. “Reflektor” has attracted comparisons to U2’s “Achtung Baby” and Radiohead’s “Kid A,” and it isn’t difficult to see why; like its forerunners, Arcade Fire seems to have recognized its signature sound was heading toward a creative dead-end, and rather than fall into repetition, opted to tear up the blueprints and start again. But while Radiohead and U2 adopted moody electronics and musique concrete trappings that were still considered radical for mainstream bands of their stature, Arcade Fire has abandoned its once inimitable style only to sound a lot more like everyone else. “Reflektor,” indeed.