Arcade Fire is still preaching, it's just from a more brightly lit mount. It's intentional to say that the Montreal-based band has allowed itself to make much for colorful, dance-embracing songs on new album "Reflektor," in that they've shown so much restraint to keep their personalities closely tied to their comfortable rock sound on their previous three sets.
On last album "The Suburbs," its standout "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)" succeeded in its lively retro sound, combining Regine Chassagne and Win Butler's strengths as vocalists and manic, holy messengers. On "Reflektor" -- both the first single and the album on the whole -- they took some of the same neon colors (no, not a Neon Bible) and flashing lights and applied it liberally, like an energy... and let LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy produce some, and David Bowie sing some.
Below is a track-by-track look at what makes "Reflektor" a solid, long and cerebral set, shy of the strings that was a signifier of the band before and bursting with a rejuvenated (if not downright young-artist) vibe of their future.
Opener "Reflektor" is such a bold statement to reform listeners' expectations of this album, it also just happens to sound like commerce. That super low bass, the piano tinkling like it did for "Neighborhoods #2 (Lies)," the “reflective age” in Regine Chassagne’s French lilting over the disco... it's instantly loveable, as well as a sign post pointing toward the rest of this long haul.
“We Exist” bears the Bowie influence in bassy gravitas plus the meandering space-age instrumental tail (and maybe the Thin White Duke’s own backup vocals?). The left-right faders give this late-night groover a third dimension and mid-tempo elegance.
The band truly stretches out here, marching through a dancehall and leaving the chamber pop outside. Win Butler’s whinny has echo and reverb for days. The sample-sounding horns try to tear through marimba and electric guitar loops, fading out into the sounds of a market or carnivale…
… which is what “Here Comes the Night Time” turns into. Sub-bass and rara-flavorings don’t drown out what is ultimately kind of a lamentation of wrong-headed foreigners and missionaries, a story Butler and his band have visited before, most strongly on “Neon Bible.” It plays into the longer love letter to Haiti that “Reflektor” is, holding an air of knowing and accusation (and mild pretension) that never makes their use of ethnic musics a neutral proposition.
I find myself looking forward to the 2:30 mark, where in the post-chorus, an upright piano bleats like a slot machine meeting a bar-floor vaudeville show.
“Normal Person”: “Do you like rock ‘n’ roll music? I don’t know if I do” Butler sneers into his mic, which – were it to have an odor – would be beer and sarcasm. I immediately think of the garbled ramblings that open “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” and this is among the first of many times I return to thinking about the White Album when I go over this set. And like that pop cut, the guitar lick here will either wither your soul or you’ll fall in love.
At the end, he waves thank you to an invisible crowd in a tiny club it seems, a fantasy for anybody who’s familiar with the expanse and influence of the sextet these days. (AF themselves, though, have tried to set up many a small rock club show in the run-up to promoting this album.)
“Already Know”: Since the Smiths are never getting back together, there’s always this.
“Joan of Arc” sounds like song that’s been incubated and nurtured, with lots of fine-tuned details, like the maxed-out gain on the opening vocals, the Gary Glitter ‘floor invitation amplified with Moog, the incantations in the backup vocals. It’s a treat by itself, and an excellent mid-point demarcation of this lofty album.
The band spookily hums back into “Here Comes The Night Time II,” strings whimpering and warning that this “feels like it never ends.” The lack of drums is very present in a drum-heavy album such as this, a quiet set-up to more noise to come.
And “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)” is that noise, as the mythical Greek nymph plays a passive role in this dream-like dystopia. The story is less important that the atmosphere, the claustrophobia of stacked synths bursting into three-part harmonies and a tinge of hope.
But, really, this is all just a waiting period for “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus),” another song with James Murphy’s fingerprints all over it. They let up on any restraint to dance, the falsetto vocals soulfully responding to a turntable-worthy beat, using its title on repeat in both a threatening and promising fashion. Chassagne’s aggressive presence really lightens the mix up, too, making “Orpheus” really sticky but not at all messy.
“Porno”: Taken as title-only, is sort of trolling. Here, Butler blames “little boys with their porno” for the hurt his subject’s endured. It’s that judgmental tone again. The offending specter is defined only by the lush keys and the rapping tappings of a rhythm section as Butler again sounds eagerly disappointed in something.
“Afterlife” is such a crowd-pleaser, a combo of older material and this newer, disco-balling era. In the wake of first single “Reflektor,” you think nothing here can compare, but “Afterlife” nips at its heels, gloriously reveling in baritone sax.
“Supersymmetry” sprawls -- instrumentally and in length, going for 11+ minutes. Congas tap, voices “la la la,” high notes flutter, the bass brrrrs, the ocean roars, babies are born, leaves change color, you see yourself when you're old and the universe is revealed in its utter worth. Sound exaggerated? That’s all this song is, and it’s bliss before the gentle “Revolution No. 9.”