There’s a moment when it almost all comes together — a guy sporting a ridiculously giant Win Butler mask is kicked off stage by the real McCoy just seconds before Arcade Fire’s performance of “Here Comes The Night Time,” one of three new songs played during the Roman Coppola-directed video promoting the Montreal natives’ new double album, Reflektor. The imposter Butler takes off the huge head and reveals himself to be none other than Bono (yes, that one), just one of several guest all-stars gracing the 22-minute, gonzo-style concert/spectacle/parody that is by turns incendiary, self-deprecating, and scathingly funny.
Bono’s been here before, if you’ll remember. During the 1993 European leg of the group’s gargantuan ZooTV/Zooropa tour, U2 were often preceded on stage by Macnas performance artists who wore over-sized, fiberglass heads bearing caricatured likenesses of the group. The “Massive Heads,” as they were soon dubbed, became an endearing phenomenon all across Europe that summer — just one more device of obfuscation employed by a band known for its seriousness now hellbent on embracing the artifice, glamour, and allure of its new, pop-culture driven persona. The music had changed, too. Even as traditionalists bemoaned Achtung Baby’s mutated dance rhythms and techno trappings, the world’s biggest rock band was busy convincing the world to shake its collective ass.
It’s been suggested that Arcade Fire are also engaged in a risky, high-wire act of musical reinvention on their fourth album Reflektor — trading in indie rock gravitas for a decadent dip into the hot tub of disco, club, and new wave pleasures. But Reflektor is more bait and switch than transformation. Its opening crop of dance-oriented songs sparkle from the artful touch of producer and LCD Soundsystem mastermind James Murphy, but as the album progresses, Arcade Fire retreat to a more traditional, rock sound with polarizing results. Somewhere buried its 85-minute constraints are the seeds of great album — you just have to dig through a layer of pretension and artistic cruft to get there. Reflektor explores topics of identity, alter-ego, and artistic metamorphosis but remains very much a typical Arcade Fire album, somewhat bloated and with a bit more cowbell.
The title track and aforementioned “Here Comes the Night Time” are notable highlights that seem destined to become concert war horses — the former a monstrous slab of horn n’ synth disco-funk that crystallizes the electronic sound hinted at by The Suburbs’ “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” and the latter a conga-line stomp that slinks along devilishly until things go ballistic and the beat amps into delirious double-time. It’s the same sort of late-song tempo shift the band employed while blowing the doors off of songs like “Une année sans lumière” and “Crown of Love” from Funeral and an encouraging sign that Arcade Fire can still write brilliant songs when sufficiently inspired.
Although Reflektor feels more indulgent and carnivalesque than their past works, it exudes Arcade Fire’s usual thematic heft and lyrical richness. When Butler talks about falling in love “in the reflective age,” he isn’t referring to self-contemplation — Reflektor quite literally holds a mirror up to a society obsessed with holding mirrors up to itself. Hiding behind huge masks, performing in discotheques under fake band names, and twisting their canonical indie rock songs into a pleasure-seeking missiles, Arcade Fire subvert the longing for fame and connection that plagues a cam whore culture isolated by its narcissism, media infatuation, and technological compulsions. “If this is heaven/ I don’t know what it’s for” Butler ponders before taking a more direct angle: “If you’re looking for hell/ Just try looking inside.” Indie darlings turned Grammy winners, Arcade Fire have tasted their share of stardom and grappled with the resulting pressures. When Butler wonders “What if the camera/ Really do/ Steal your soul?” over the unctuous, Clash-like dub beat of “Flashbulb Eyes,” it doesn’t feel like a hypothetical question.
The ultimate irony is that for all their subterfuge and shape-shifting, Arcade Fire haven’t changed much at all, and ten years into their career, it’s starting to catch up with them. Reflektor dazzles when Arcade Fire commits to the groove, but stumbles on its slower, more traditional songs. The meandering “Here Comes The Night Time II” is a pointless inclusion and mid-tempo centerpieces “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)” and “Porno” nearly buckle under their own plodding weight. The fist-pumping, shout-along climaxes found on the band’s old rock anthems are also noticeably absent. “You Already Know” is such a spotless reproduction of a Marr and Rourke melody that you’ll be dusting off your copy of The Queen is Dead, and “Joan of Arc” tries like hell to ape “Rebellion (Lies),” but Reflektor’s guitar-centric songs feel decidedly fatigued. These days, Arcade Fire sound most invigorated when outside their comfort zone, and too much of Reflektor’s 75 minutes is spent inside it.
“Normal Person” begins with a startling admission from Butler: “Do you like rock and roll music? / Cuz I don’t know if I do.” Ennui has become a legitimate concern for indie music’s reigning kings. Arcade Fire may be trying to jump start their creative engines, but they’ve stopped short on Reflektor, which often confuses transition for evolution. When a band at the height of its handsomeness opts for a face lift, people love to romanticize the act — Bono famously swooned that Achtung Baby was the sound of “four men chopping down The Joshua Tree.” Try as they might with Reflektor, Arcade Fire fall short of setting fire to the mammoth sprawl that was The Suburbs, and instead offer us a few moments of genuine freedom when they manage to tear the roof off the sucker.