Critics taking to a new Arcade Fire record is about as expected as a dog taking to rawhide smeared in peanut butter, so The Washington Post's Chris Richards could at least be commended for livening up the debate about the band's new album, Reflektor. Richards blasts the album, out today, for a lack of "wit, subtlety, and danger" and mocks the group's perceived classic-rock allegiances—but they're the same allegiances the Arcade Fire's supporters are celebrating.
It's Richards's lede that is drawing the most scorn:
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.
Which is funny, because—well, he's probably right! They do seem like gigantic dorks, given the ancient Greek allusions and disco flirtations that pepper their formidably ambitious fourth LP, and scientists have no reason to suspect frontman Win Butler and wife/bandmate Régine Chassagne's sex life is any more interesting than your average Montreal couple's, especially while weathering the stress of life on tour. And anyway, if the popular frenzy over Morrissey's memoir shows us anything, it's that music fans positively love gigantic dorks with boring (or possibly nonexistent) sex lives.
The rest of Richards's takedown is rife with references to rock giants, blasting the group for aiming high and "applying a pneumatic hammer to our classic rock pleasure centers." But his scorn is interesting; namedropping U2, Bowie, and the Talking Heads, among others, he makes precisely the same parallels that Reflektor's glowing reviews can't get enough of. It's just that in his hands, the comparisons are mockery—"the ponderous grandeur of U2" is a quality to be ashamed of.
And that's the most popular one: Achtung Baby-era U2. It was Buzzfeed's Matthew Perpetua who first dropped the parallel on Twitter, even before hearing the album, and it's stuck. Like the Irish act, Arcade Fire have ditched the earnestness of their youth, embracing irony and electro-pop in a two-for-one bargain. So it is that Pitchfork's Lindsay Zoladz praises the album's pop tracks as "reminiscent of the way Achtung Baby summoned the ghosts that had always been dormant in U2" and Grantland's Steven Hyden says Arcade Fire's snagging James Murphy is like "U2 using [Brian] Eno as a guide into Europop and industrial grime on Achtung Baby." David Fricke makes the exact same parallel in his review for Rolling Stone, because it's "a thrilling act of risk and renewal by a band with established commercial appeal and a greater fear of the average, of merely being liked."
There's also a Talking Heads trope making its way through the reviews, owing to Reflektor's funkiness. There are dance beats! Bongos and world rhythms! White people being funky are all genealogically descended from David Byrne, the logic goes, and critics are all too happy to indulge it. For Billboard's Chris Payne, Reflektor is "a new-millennium response to the Talking Heads' landmark, Brian Eno-produced album, Remain In Light" (that's high praise); for Stereogum's Tom Breihan, the record is "the band’s proud, obvious, self-conscious decision to attempt an Achtung Baby or a Remain In Light." But, again, in Richards's hands, that's a diss: Win Butler is "at his most irritating" when "pulling David Byrne’s oversize blazer out of the closet."
Scroll through a handful of reviews and you'll notice the rest, over and over: David Bowie's Low period (again, a confluence of Brian Eno and world influences), the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street (a landmark for the sprawling, double-LP statement), Radiohead's Kid A (we can non-ironically term Radiohead a classic rock act now, yes?), Fleetwood Mac (more seventies excess, more husband-wife bandmates). Nearly all crop up in the Post's review, albeit shaded with scorn.
No contemporary indie-rock act has drawn as much comparison to critical giants of the 1970s and '80s—not to the Beatles, but the Fab Four's glammier, flashier, funkier descendants. It's lazy, but we can't help ourselves—listeners clearly sense that the band is aiming for a grand, unapologetically huge statement on Reflektor, and whether they've succeeded or not, it's hard not to be bowled over by it, grasping through our vocabulary of comparably ambitious giants to express how it makes us feel and what it tries to do.
And frankly, plenty of those classics were made by gigantic dorks with boring sex lives, too.