Arcade Fire gets its groove on, to mixed results

Montreal art-rockers lost on the dance-floor for album number four

November 4, 2013

While the end result of Arcade Fire’s much-anticipated, sprawling, double-disc, 75-minute Reflektor is, thankfully, better than you might have been led to believe by the Saturday Night Live performances and Roman Coppola-directed special that aired immediately after those a few weeks back, my initial assessment of the beloved indie-rockers’ new music wasn’t far off base.

These 13 tracks are indeed an unlikely hybrid of ’80s David Bowie (think “Let’s Dance”); U2 arena bombast leavened with a bit of Bono-as-MacPhisto irony; disco-era Roxy Music, and hints of New Orleans second line music by way of Haiti. The group’s desire to stretch out and experiment, reasserting what used to be called an alternative attitude, certainly is understandable and even laudable, following the last album’s embrace by the mainstream and a Grammy win for album of the year. The results just aren’t as consistent or as satisfying as what they’ve given us in the past.

After bandleader Win Butler’s fetching way with a melody, the biggest strengths of all of this big band’s previous discs—The Suburbs (2010), Neon Bible (2007) and Funeral (2004)—were the sophisticated lyrics (whether they were examining suburban sprawl in language that would make Malcolm Gladwell proud, musing on the ecstatic power of religion, or reveling in existentialism) and the way those heavy topics were breezily carried by layers of syncopated rhythms strong enough to rock an arena or a vast festival crowd without ever resorting to clichés or redundancy. It was as if the Feelies had somehow merged with AC/DC (and trust me on that; I’m a drummer).

“Do you like rock ’n’ roll music?” Butler now asks at the start of “Normal Person.” “’Cause I don't know if I do [anymore].”

Hey, the auteur is entitled to have grown tired of four on the floor, and none but the most hardcore rockist would deny him the opportunity to toss things up. The problem is, with the notable exceptions of the handful of tunes that are kicked up a notch by those New Orleans and Haitian seasonings (the latter inspired by the upbringing of Butler’s wife Regine Chassagne), the dance grooves aren’t nearly as motivating, energizing, or imaginative as the rhythms the band has charted earlier. (And don’t blame James Murphy, who co-produced with the band and Markus Dravs; as the former engine of LCD Soundsystem recently told Sound Opinions, the new musical direction was well underway when he came onboard.)

Not only is the album as a whole too darn long, but many of the songs are, too—stretched far beyond the point where even the strongest melodies can justify them. (And there are still melodies: Just try to get that plunky keyboard hook from “Here Comes the Night Time” out of your head, I dare ya.) Yet if the grooves are repetitive and reductive, the lyrics are even moreso. For all the pre-release chatter about drawing inspiration from the 1959 film Black Orpheus, Søren Kierkegaard, Greek mythology, and a fictitious alter-ego band called the Reflektors, Butler either has run out of deep issues to ponder or he’s just gotten lazy. How else to explain endlessly repeated, seemingly portentous, but actually hollow lines such as “I’ve never really ever met a normal person” (“Normal Person”), “It seems so important now/But you will get over” (“It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)”), “Hit me with your flashbulb eyes!” (“Flashbulb Eyes”), and “Supersymmetry, supersymmetry, supersymmetry, supersymmetry” (“Supersymmetry”).

Yes, that last song does have a rather beautiful, swelling uplift about four minutes in—and that would have been a great place to end the tune and the album, but things go on for another seven minutes (not to mention the hidden 10-minute “bonus” track of whirring tape roll and tuning instruments).

So it goes throughout Reflektor. Small pleasures for the longtime Arcade Fire fans or the new initiates are plentiful, but they’re diluted by the bloat, worn down by the repetition, and sometimes lost in the excess. The fans, if they’re at all honest, know the band can do better, while the newcomers will inevitably ask what all the fuss is about.

Arcade Fire, Reflektor (Merge Records)

Rating on the four-star scale: 2.5 stars.

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