So that's what the mystery of Arcade Fire playing at a Montreal salsa club was all about. The Montreal indie-rock aueters' NBC late-night takeover on September 28 answered a few lingering questions about the buildup to their upcoming fourth album, Reflektor, coming to you October 29 via Merge Records. And it did so in a way that was at once convincingly adept and yet also refreshingly light-hearted.
First up was Arcade Fire's fourth performance on Saturday Night Live, for the season premiere hosted by Tina Fey. Next week will be Miley Cyrus, but this week's musical guests gave stirring, buoyantly percussive rendition of two Rekletor tracks. One was the previously revealed title track (below), complete with the band's Regine Chssagne at one point singing from within a reflective box. The other, after a costume change that came with raccoon eye makeup for leader Win Butler, was newly unveiled "Afterlife," which similarly marries band's usual post-apocalyptic uplift with Salsoul-ready congas (refrain: "Can we work it out?"). They had helped from Haitian drummers and, on brass, Colin Stetson and Michael Lewis. Watch them debut it on national television above.
Aside from playing new songs on SNL, though, Arcade Fire also gamely participated in a sketch called "New Cast Member or Arcade Fire?" Butler, described by Fey as "hipster Paul Bunyan, a Civil War re-enactor, and a Serbian basketball player," showed off a pretty sharp Robert De Niro impression. Enjoy that one, below, too.
Those who stayed up after SNL got to go down the wonderfully weird little rabbit hole that was Arcade Fire's half-hour TV concert special. The setting shifted quickly from Rockefeller Center to or Salsathèque, a Montreal salsa club where the group announced a costume-party show shortly after reports of an unannounced gig. The special included a coterie of self-aware guest appearances, from James Franco, Ben Stiller, Bono, Rainn Wilson, Michael Cera, Aziz Ansari, Eric Wareheim, Bill Hader, Zach Galifianakis, and Jason Schwartzman. (Cera, in character as a salsa-club employee, would've rather been seeing Shakira, Mumford & Sons, or Michael Buble.)
If the spectacle marked yet another look-how-far-they've-come moment for a group that has already risen in the past decade from MP3 blogs to Grammy Awards, the music still more than held its own. The highlight was calypso-splashed opener "Here Comes the Night Time," a wildly tempo-shifting song that, when previewed in a secret concert, led Montreal lifestyle blog the Main to describe it indelibly as: Imagine the Talking Heads' 'Once in a Lifetime,' but if David Bowie had written it while on vacation." Instant senior-quote fodder that will make aging scribes unfairly grumble: "If there's no music up in heaven, then what's it for?"
The special included two other new songs. One, string-draped with a slithery bass line recalling Spanish band Los Bravos' 1966 hit "Black Is Black," appeared to be "We Exist." The other, which based on the lyrics was "Normal Person," moved from a jittery, David Byrne-like introduction ("I'm so confused," even over bluesy piano here, called to mind the "I'm tense and nervous"-ness of "Psycho Killer") had a more explosive, almost noise-rock quality than we usually see from the group. The song's crucial theme involves being both "cool enough" and, maybe "cruel enough" to be "normal." In the high-decibel verses, it was also tempting to recall how Nirvana grappled over similar ambivalence about their appeal to "normal" people ("But he don't know what it means"). But Arcade Fire tend to inspire way too much of that kind of dead-sober (over?) analysis. More thrilling: Watching the salsa-club revelers and vicariously joining them. Arcade Fire may be skeptical of social media, but thank goodness they like television.
Arcade Fire's Here Comes the Night Time NBC concert special:
Arcade Fire performing "Reflektor" on SNL:
Watch Arcade Fire's SNL sketch:
Watch Arcade Fire's SNL promos: