The experience of the advance "listening session" is an unnatural way to hear an album, especially for the first time: You've got one chance to conjure all kinds of deep thoughts and definitive judgments about a body of work people have usually labored over for years. Unlike a film screening, only your sense of hearing is engaged, and because music tends to conjure a sense of place, you can end up envisioning the walls of a conference room and the blank stares of the other people at the session every time you hear certain songs for years afterward. And although the listening session for Arcade Fire’s fourth LP Reflektor, due October 29 on Merge Records, was held at New York’s famed Electric Lady Studios in a lovely dimmed room with a pair of kick-ass speakers, this knee-jerk pre-reviewer freely admits to many shortcomings in the following due to the above factors.
1. REFLEKTOR SOUNDS LIKE ARCADE FIRE, BUT THEY'RE A WHOLE NEW BAND.
That majestic, cinematic, anthemic sound is still there but it's subtler, and the group's confidence, swing, and swagger have grown by leaps and bounds.
They've also finally learned how to put some air in their music: The album veers masterfully from spare to sprawling (and vice versa) in an instant.
2. THE DANCEY THING PRETTY MUCH GOES AWAY AFTER THE FIRST COUPLE OF SONGS...
... Although the emphasis on rhythm doesn't. The album opens with the by-now-well-known title track, which is essentially a several-minute-long “extended dance remix” of a three-and-a-half minute song, like on the countless 1980s-era 12-inch singles that co-producer James Murphy spins when he DJs. (He probably even knows that the early Soft Cell and Duran Duran 12-inch remixes destroy the album versions.) And while we’re on that topic, the bassline of the second track, "We Exist" (the disco-y second song performed on the Arcade Fire in Here Comes the Night Time program that followed Saturday Night Live last weekend) is "Like a Virgin" grafted onto "Billie Jean."
8. THE STRINGS ARE PRESENT BUT MUCH LESS PROMINENT THAN BEFORE.
Arcade Fire are now a sextet, with Sarah Neufeld relegated to a full-time supporting/touring role similar to that of fellow violinist Owen Pallette.
12. JOIN US IN PRAYER THAT REFLEKTOR DOES NOT TURN ARCADE FIRE INTO U2... ANY MORE THAN THEY ALREADY ARE.
Because it could. Reflektor is like Mad Men or a Mercedes or Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom: whether or not you like it, the quality of the art and the scale of the accomplishment are undeniable.