NASTY LITTLE MAN: Arcade Fire’s video for “We Exist” stars Andrew Garfield (aka Spiderman) in a narrative that begins in a nondescript locale and concludes live on stage during the band’s second weekend headline set at this year’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. “We Exist” is a 6:18 long story of one young person’s struggle with gender identity set to the soundtrack of the second track from Arcade Fire’s Reflektor album. The band’s Win Butler has described the song as “about a gay kid talking to his dad,” specifically coming out to his straight father, and has introduced it during recent live performances with the statement, “The right to marry anyone you want is a human rights issue.”

PREVIOUSLY: The jagged through-line of agreed-upon rock n’ roll history is marked by epic strategic blunders and stylistic reboot fails that will live on in infamy. The Grateful Dead going disco, Jefferson Airplane becoming Jefferson Starship, REM attempting rap (nothing personal KRS-One, it wasn’t you it was them), the Rolling Stones hiring the Hell’s Angels to keep the peace at Altamont, to name but a few. Add to the list the Arcade Fire getting ‘funk to funky.’ Or trying to, anyway.

There seems to be two schools of thought on Reflektor. A) It’s their answer to Exile On Main St. or Achtung Baby or Kid A, i.e. a radical reinvention posing as a hot, brilliant mess. B) Same old white boy indie noise, now with more sex and bongos and less feeling. To me it sounds like the latter, as unfairly dismissive and mean-spirited as that may be. Hey, we’d all like to be Rick James, bitch, or at least Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch. Just like we’d all like to be LeBron James or Dr. J. But we’re not. We’re just not.

Hard for me to put my finger on why I had such a viscerally negative response to Reflektor but I’ve thought about it a lot and I’ve come up with three reasons. First, I really like the Arcade Fire and expect better. I am, after all, the guy who wrote this in the Inquirer the last time they came through town:

In a more accurate world, if you looked up anthemic in the dictionary, you would invariably find a picture of the Arcade Fire. Rousing, heartfelt and everyone-can-sing-along have been, heretofore, the hallmarks of the Montreal band’s recorded output. The just-released The Suburbs, which largely eschews the fist-pumping chorales of previous outings in favor of low-boil brooding, may well change all that. But Monday night at the Mann Music Center The Arcade Fire got back to what they do best: passionately pounding out sweeping, densely-layered, stadium-shaking soundtracks for people who have long ago made peace with the fact that sooner or later the world will break your heart. If nothing else, Arcade Fire proved that the profound sense of loss — of innocence, of control, of loved ones dead and gone — that is so central to their music has a mass resonance that transcends the parameters of pop, and when shared with 7,500 kindred spirits on a cool summer night it becomes a celebration of sorts. Message: everybody hurts, but we are all in this together. MORE

Second, it’s inconceivable to me that you can get LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy together with Arcade Fire and make a shitty record, so maybe I’m just bitter about being proven wrong.

Third, it’s also inconceivable to me that you can get David Bowie together with the Arcade Fire and make something instantly forgettable, but maybe that just points out the shortage of my imagination. Word to Win: If you’re not going to do a straight up duet with one of the greatest vocalists of the 20th century, you should have had Bowie do something wordless or percussive or recurring. Like that heavy breathing thing on The Zombies’ “Time Of The Season” or the shouty chorus of Wings’ “Jet.” (And you guys should start covering the latter, post haste.)

But, I am a forgiving man. Maybe Reflektor‘s boogie down production just needs to be heard in the heat of the passion of the live moment. So I went to see them play at the Wells Fargo Center last night with an open mind and…well, it still sounds like Mormons discovering sex and bongos to me. And live, the bongo players (conga players, to be exact) are…wait for it…B-L-A-C-K. Talk about unforced errors. Not since the Beach Boys hired Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar has sonic tokenism seemed so forced, ill-advised and ill-fitting. MORE