Arcade Fire really want you to know that they've changed on their fourth album, Reflektor. They're more colorful, more groovy, more willing to laugh at themselves. They recorded the album with LCD Soundsystem mastermind James Murphy as producer, and they debuted a big chunk of the material in a deeply strange half-hour special that aired on NBC following their appearance on the season premiere of Saturday Night Live. It's a whole new era for Win Butler and his small legion of musicians.
But not really. While it's true that Reflektor integrates elements of disco, reggae, calypso, and synth pop and is foregrounded by a busy sense of rhythm that has always been part of the band's sound, the actual songs feel like the same old Arcade Fire: dour, earnest, thudding, and dramatic. Everything on Reflektor sounds as though it was recorded live at a worn-down discotheque, and though the "nightlife" gloss is attractive, it's also superficial: There's just no getting around this band's unshakeable sense of self. There are solid, danceable beats on cuts like "Reflektor," "We Exist," and "It's Never Over (Oh Orpheus)," but it's hard to imagine anyone dancing to them outside the context of an Arcade Fire concert. The dynamic of the songs is heavily weighted in favor of arena rock theatricality, with the climaxes of key cuts like "Here Comes the Night Time" catering more to what would kill at a rock show rather than a dance club. Also, while they can write a good groove, the band is seemingly incapable of coming across as fun or sexy. They just can't help but be a big stack of wet blankets.
It's unfair to harp on what Arcade Fire are not, though. No one expects them to be fun, but they are expected to be exciting, emotional, and epic, and they remain the best arena rock band of their generation. The tension of Reflektor is in hearing the band grow restless with its sound while still being trapped in it even when try to step outside it. This has happened before with other arty arena rock bands: U2 embracing irony and dissonance on Achtung Baby, R.E.M. going baroque on Out of Time, Radiohead going out of their way to sound like anything but a guitar band on Kid A. Arcade Fire have the most in common with U2, and what they are attempting to do here is just like the sort of radical rebranding Bono and company pulled off in the early '90s.
Butler seems especially eager to come across like something more than an intense, extremely serious dude. He opens the straight-ahead rocker "Normal Person" by asking "Do you like rock and roll music? / because I don't know if I do…" in a mocking singsong, which is like if Bono opened "The Fly by singing, "I dunno if enjoy being earnest anymore." The irony is heavy-handed, but his angst is easy to get. Rock music, especially big anthemic rock music, is no one's idea of cool anymore, so he feels pressured to apologize in advance for what is certainly the best song on the album. This self-consciousness is very human, but also a little off-putting because insecurity isn't the greatest look for a rock star. It certainly sets them apart from their contemporaries in Coldplay, who don't seem remotely concerned with seeming smart or cool, and throw themselves wholeheartedly into making sparkling, uplifting anthems.
While it's nice to hear Arcade Fire expand their musical range, their idea of which styles to experiment with on Reflektor is very conservative, and are exactly the same moves The Clash made to expand their sound in the early '80s with London Calling and Sandinista. This was all radical and fresh back then, but now it's all stuff that is permanently classified as cool and timeless. Every move they make is something based in music that is preapproved by the majority of people who would consider themselves to have good taste. The record will only remind you of stuff no one is ashamed to say they love. There's no real creative risk here, and almost no trace of influence from the recent past.
And that makes a lot of sense, given that on a thematic level, Reflektor is a flat rejection of contemporary culture. Butler comes off like a young fogey on all of Arcade Fire's albums, but his disdain for modern technology and obsession with authenticity is the idea that binds the whole record. He never sounds as dejected as when he sings, "We fell in love when I was 19, and now we're staring at a screen" in "Reflektor," or as paranoid as when he wonders, "What if the camera really do take your soul?" in "Flashbulb Eyes." Reflektor, as an album, is an attempt to create a safe, exciting space for like-minded people, and totally succeeds on those terms. The songs are mostly terrific, at least four cuts are among the best rock songs of the year. But the irony of the record is that while Butler disdains the conformity of "those normals," the music is driven by the same neurotic need to fit in and be accepted by the people they want to be their peers.