Album Review: Arcade Fire, ‘Reflektor’
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.