Arcade Fire is dancing. Arcade Fire has on its shoulders a big shiny head that looks like Arcade Fire’s own head, but huge and crinkled. Arcade Fire is playing a song that sounds like Arcade Fire’s own song, but fatter and clumsier. It looks like dancing, but it is social work. It looks like dancing, but it is guilt. It looks like praying, but it is a lecture about praying. It looks like fun, but it is not fun. Arcade Fire says it is fun, because Arcade Fire is dancing.
I often feel logy before putting on a record that I’m slated to review, like I’m getting up in the morning for work. But that dissipates. The music soon becomes a pool cue that gets mental billiards rolling, points clacking against counterpoints. I get hooked, as by a game or by the rush of conversation. Five listens into Arcade Fire’s Reflektor, I still feel like I’m commuting and the train is late. It’s not because the songs are long, although the songs are long. It’s that the band sounds like they are working, adding up data, taking meetings. Dancing on the clock. Not like they’re playing. It makes me feel bad for them. Sorry you have a hard job, Arcade Fire.
I am not trying to be sarcastic about Arcade Fire. They do have a hard job. By inclination, as well as by structural position as the cult band that became massive (Best Album Grammy, sold-out arena shows, Internet-straining album leaks), Arcade Fire radiates earnestness, and the fallout of earnestness is sarcasm. But I respect and believe in Arcade Fire’s sincerity, intelligence, ambition, conscientiousness, skill. The loss this week of Lou Reed was an apt reminder that perversely inspired willfulness and not-a-shit-giving can trump such commendable virtues. But not always. Arcade Fire’s high-water marks on record and in concert are fine arguments for the humanist band (Beatles, Springsteen, Clash, Outkast) even though their most-mentioned heroes hit their peaks as anti-humanists, such as David Bowie (who guests here), New Order, and Talking Heads (who haunt here).
The benefit of anti-humanism is that it sets an artist apart in splendid isolation. The benefit of humanism is connection—a value Arcade Fire always has enacted, with its large ensemble singing chorally in procession through a crowd. But the risk in that linkage is that as the artist gains status the exchange becomes uneven, shifts from symbiosis to control. The artist becomes the educator, the evangelist. When Bruce Springsteen sings Woody Guthrie he is not demonstrating against the state but demonstrating something to his audience, teaching a lesson. This may be the way Arcade Fire is dancing.
This isn’t the record they planned to make. “We intended to make a short record and we ended up with 18 songs that were all between six and eight minutes and we were like, ‘Uh oh, I think we screwed up making a short record.’ “ I’d like to hear that other record.
What they have made instead is almost the record I was hoping to hear, but there is nothing more frustrating than a near miss. I’d hoped Reflektor would carry on directly from the about-face at the end of The Suburbs, “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains),” a sparkling recapitulation of the band’s bedroom-transcendentalist mythos as utopian disco, with lead vocals by Régine Chassagne.
I was encouraged by “Reflektor,” the first single—it has the beat, albeit a draggy version that never spirals into Giorgio Moroder stratospherics. I figured there’d be more where it came from. Ideally with Chassagne fronting again, because “Reflektor” makes a solid case that Win Butler can’t step lightly enough to sing disco.
It turns out there’s not a lot more like “Sprawl II” here, though. Chassagne still doesn’t sing enough. The band is a bit defensive about having brought in the party scientist James Murphy (LCD Soundsystem) as a co-producer, saying he didn’t really change the record much. I wish he’d done more. No question, there are beats aplenty, like the badly overdone dub-reggae of “Flashbulb Eyes,” and the not-so-bad diluted Chic pulse of “Afterlife” near the end. There’s “Here Comes the Night Time,” its take on Caribbean carnival rhythms held to midtempo (and Van Morrison-like) which gives the band time to dig in and find geography, geometry, and chronometry in it—that is, momentum.
But the only track that slakes my original craving is the 10th one, “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus),” in which synthesized and electric basses tongue-kiss and Chassagne and Butler wind their voices together like ivy. When rhythm comes alive it’s always both direct experience and metaphor—here, a metaphor for the patience required to outwit and outlive a crisis, as well as a metaphor for the ongoing crisis of life itself. Like metaphor, true dancing is doubling. Compounding. Counterforce and contretemps.
Much of the rest of the time, the crisis that seems like it will never end is the record itself. This hour-plus of music gets stagnant as songs bog down in flourishes and effects, as if to compensate for the punch the rhythm section can’t quite land.
There are some excellent guitar solos, but excellent guitar solos are kind of the kryptonite of dancing.
Lyrically Reflektor seems to get tangled in side issues that stand in for more substantial ones. I will spare you my rant about the immature condescension of “Normal Person,” which is also my rant about the immature condescension of “Modern Man” on The Suburbs. I will spare you my rant about the “k” in “Reflektor.” I am still deciding whether to spare you my rant about the Orpheus and Eurydice references; let’s just say it’s usually a sign of trouble when rockers turn to stock classical allusions.
These are significant problems because this is Arcade Fire, the great humanist band of the decade, the one that said a rock group could be like a neighborhood, a town, a family, and that by extension your family, your friends, your town could be like a rock band. I get that they can’t stick with that formula forever. But if what they resort to instead is trite symbolism, to spoonfuls of science fiction, the bedroom transcendentalists leave themselves without any linoleum or tile flooring to rise above. As Marianne Moore might say, their imaginary gardens have no real toads in them. As Lou Reed might say, they tell you they’re waiting on the street with money in their hands, but they don’t say which intersection and how much money.
Still, I meant it when I said I admire their ambition. The culture’s getting awfully casual; somebody’s got to overreach. I felt like Neon Bible overshot by a mile, too. Maybe I’ll always like every second Arcade Fire album. That’s not a bad pattern. It has its own rhythm, a likeably dependable relationship, one-two, one-two.
The other day I got a puzzled message from my friend Mani Haghighi in Tehran (he makes movies there): “Am I wrong to think the new Arcade Fire album is really, really bad? What was so original about them was the way they avoided cheap or everyday irony, in favor of wacky biography. This is just ironic, knowing, clever, sophisticated bullshit.”
That isn’t fair, but it helped me think about what would be fair.
There still is “wacky biography” here—personal narrative that isn’t phony or secondhand, in “Reflektor” and “It’s Never Over” and “Afterlife,” about sustaining love over time, via fallible communication, and under scrutiny. Butler sings, “We fell in love when I was 19/ and now we’re staring at a screen.” Later he reiterates, “I met you up upon a stage/ Our love in a reflective age.” Butler’s and Chassagne’s real-life marriage (they had their first child this spring) always has been the vicarious romance of Arcade Fire; sometimes they are obviously singing about it and sometimes one can’t help but think so. You can dispute the legitimacy of the projection, but they’re clearly aware of the charge it carries. They invoke it and they cloak it. This is mystique, charisma. It’s even a very straight sort of camp. (Arcade Fire doesn’t tell jokes but there is humor in the energy between its members.)
But that intimacy gets drowned out in the sawing on about screens and texting and Twitter, the current peeves of all professional scolds. Arcade Fire can’t escape its nature as an Internet-era band, so the critique comes reflecting, deflecting, dejecting back. I know they know this. They know I know it. Knowing doesn’t break the circuit. Spending three years using sophisticated recording technology to criticize technology is modern rock’s most exhausted routine. These songs arrived to me, as they likely did to you, via download. Rather than something being lost in transmission, it’s as if the stream accumulated too much flotsam en route—the flourishes, the nonissues. Meanwhile the distinct individuals we became attached to seem to pixelate and blur. It’s not cheap but expensive irony.
But the vicarious romance isn’t over. I still care a lot about Win and Régine and their friends. I’m waiting for the signal to phase back in.
We haven’t talked about Haiti yet, the experience Butler has said shaped this record. My friend Ann Powers, who writes and talks about music for NPR, threw out an idea on Facebook this week: “Bands who make earnestness their rocket fuel get around to more complicated and danceable rhythms on their third, fourth, fifth albums. This usually involves some reckoning with the racialized ‘primitive.’ “ She pointed to the Beatles and the Stones with Indian and Moroccan music, and Led Zep with “Kashmir,” and the Clash (maybe more organically) with Jamaica and obviously Talking Heads with Remain in Light and U2 with Achtung Baby and Pop.
“That concept/style of encounter stubbornly endures,” Ann said, “despite so much evidence accrued that whatever source the rockers mine (blues, soul, Africa, the Caribbean; hell, disco) is so much farther from primitive than what the rockers were doing before.”
Again, fair and not fair.
I don’t think Arcade Fire is being condescending toward Haiti, where Chassagne’s family roots are and where the band’s spent serious time and has done valuable relief work. One of the things that makes “Here Comes the Night Time” a relief on this record is that its lyrics, about missionaries disrespecting the deep knowledge of the Haitians they’re supposed to aid, and about island night life, all feel fully lived in and imagined, the opposite of the vagueness I’ve complained about.
But Arcade Fire always has had something of a weakness for idealizing authenticity. When Butler speaks excitedly of losing context and getting down to basics, he has the tone of the traveler declaring he has come upon something “real.” For Western artists in these encounters there’s always that precarious balance between savoring and seizing.
I think the impulse for Ann’s lineage of rockers is often less to “go primitive” than to go somewhere. Go rockabilly. Go synth. Go orchestral. Go dissonant. Lou Reed did it, Neil Young did it, not so much with cultural borrowing as with quick changes of style. It’s a risk. People get annoyed. But the rule is to fail big, to fail better; to half-fail never.
The trouble with Arcade Fire’s touches from Haiti (and Jamaica, where much of Reflektor was recorded) may be that they do it too gingerly. They’re too smart and tasteful to appropriate too blatantly. But in some ways at this point that timidity can be more offensive than a bolder raid might be, as if Haiti were sugar that might melt in Arcade Fire’s mouth. Go ahead and drum on the ribs of a hundred million ancestors. They can take it. They wrote more songs than you ever will.
Mostly I wanted to tell Bruce Springsteen that I already knew about Woody Guthrie and I want to tell Arcade Fire that I already knew about dancing. Maybe Reflektor sounds different if you didn’t, but who doesn’t know about dancing? (I know someone might answer, “Arcade Fire fans.” But I didn’t say dancing well. Just dancing.)
So dance with us. Don’t dance down to us. Here endeth the lesson.
Arcade Fire is dancing. The dance is just beginning. Go on, Arcade Fire. Don’t charge by the hour. Dance on top of the clock. Crack its face. Time isn’t holding us. Time isn’t after us. Dance, Arcade Fire, dance …