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Arcade Fire’s ‘Reflektor’: Still devoid of wit, subtlety and danger, now with bongos

Arcade Fire’s fourth album is “Reflektor.” (Guy Aroch)

Look, I’m sure they’re very nice people, but on their fourth album, “Reflektor,” Arcade Fire still sound like gigantic dorks with boring sex lives.

After winning a Grammy for album of the year in 2011, they’re still the biggest rock band on the block, still making music mysteriously devoid of wit, subtlety and danger. And now, they’re really into bongo drums, too. We should all be repulsed. Only partially because of the bongos.

Mostly because this is rock music that lazily presumes life on the digital plane has made us so numb, so unable to feel for ourselves, that the only way to reach our hearts is by applying a pneumatic hammer to our classic rock pleasure centers. Bowie! Springsteen! Talking Heads! Blam-blam-blam! Bludgeoning and vacant, “Reflektor” is an album that both condescends and sells itself short, over and over again, for 76 insufferable minutes.

The band’s problems are laid bare early with “We Exist,” a mid-tempo sulker that initially sounds like Fleetwood Mac trying to moonwalk through “Billie Jean” in uncomfortable footwear. Frontman Win Butler — still as dreadful a lyricist as ever — tries to correct his charisma deficiency with an affected sneer: “You’re down on your knees, begging us please, praying that we don’t exist.” (Dramatic pause.) “We exist!”

They exist! But who are they? After four albums, Arcade Fire are still struggling to present themselves as distinct and compelling human beings. Their anthems feel like cavernous vessels vast enough to stow the most bloated of emotions, but it’s always been on the listener to fill them up.

Too frequently on “Reflektor,” Butler’s lyrics assume a murky us-against-them posture. It’s intended to feel like an insidery group hug, but it only highlights his band’s chronic personality gap. And when co-vocalist Regine Chassagne materializes to play Butler’s vocal foil, she toggles between cheerleadery English and breathy French, because — ooh-la-la — it wraps these bland songs in a thin cloak of cosmopolitan sophistication.

Butler is at his most irritating with “Normal Person,” pulling David Byrne’s oversize blazer out of the closet and asking, “Is anything as strange as a normal person? Is anyone as cruel as a normal person?”

You tell us, dude. When a band this massively popular, this risk-averse, this patently un-weird takes heartfelt shots at the “norms,” it’s hard to decide whether to laugh, barf or weep for the future of rock-and-roll itself.

Because great art should crack away at what came before, right? This band has spent the past nine years dutifully re-creating it, namely the ponderous grandeur of U2. And on “Reflektor,” they’ve done it with the help of producer James Murphy, the former LCD Soundsystem frontman whose good taste has now been thrown in question.

He has swaddled “Reflektor” in warm analog synthesizers and stretched it over a bongo-popping grid, doing his best imitation of Brian Eno, the guru behind David Bowie’s “Low,” Talking Heads’ “Remain in Light” and U2’s “Achtung Baby.”

But “Reflektor” isn’t neoclassicism. It’s something conservative pretending to be something bold. It’s Sandra Bullock’s hack dialogue in “Gravity.” It’s square, sexless, deeply unstylish, painfully obvious rock music. It’s an album with a song called “Porno” that you could play for your parents. It’s fraud.

Chris Richards is The Washington Post's pop music critic. He has recently written about Adele's sadness, Kendrick Lamar's fury, Young Thug's genius and T-Pain's vulnerability.



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