“Do you like rock n’ roll music? Cause I don’t know if I do…”
Arcade Fire has never been known for their subtlety; even so, Win Butler’s mumbled admission over the opening riff of “Normal Person” comes as a surprise – at least at first. The aforementioned song, positioned halfway through the first disc of the Canadian group’s hotly-anticipated new album, is a ramshackle blues-rocker. It’s also the closest the band hews to traditional “rock” in the ambitious double LP’s 85-minute run time. After three excellent albums of straight-laced, overly-sincere arena rock, fans and critics thought they knew what to expect from Win Butler and co. But as is immediately apparent from the discotheque drums of the album opener, Arcade Fire has zagged when we expected them to zig. The result is Reflektor, a flawed yet beautiful album that ambitiously builds on past successes rather than resting on them.
Gone are the hurdy-gurdies, the slinky string arrangements, the glockenspiel and mandolin. Everything bright and friendly has been scrapped and replaced with rasping synth, gritty guitars, and hammering dance beats. Reflektor is aggressive and relentless, at times claustrophobic and paranoid, often overwhelming, but always cathartic. It is also unequivocally still Arcade Fire. The album reads as natural progression from a band who answers to no one but their own muses – this is their equivalent of Radiohead’s Kid A. Of course, a paradigm shift of this order was always going to be divisive.
The album lacks any of the monster hooks that launched a thousand pale imitations (I’m looking at you, Lumineers). Reflektor requires patience and dedication, something that is often in short supply when ingesting modern music. With every listen, I find little intricacies blooming in the margins – the way “Normal Person” was recorded to sound like a shitty lounge band performing for a tepid audience, the cacophonic din as literal awful sound in “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice),” or BBC’s Jonathan Ross “introducing” the band (the audio clip is taken from a 2007 clip where an angry Butler famously smashed a camera on-air.)
Much of the praise for that minutial brilliance is owed to producer James Murphy (of LCD Soundsystem fame), whose heavy-handed influence must have been a huge catalyst for change in the band’s songwriting and composition style. Comparisons to Brian Eno circa U2’s Achtung Baby or David Bowie’s Low are apparently wholly unavoidable (seriously, crack open any other review and you’ll see them mentioned; I’m not proud to jump on the bandwagon, but the parallels are too fitting to ignore.) Production techniques and song structures both borrow heavily from Murphy’s musical sensibilities. As with pretty much every LCD Soundsystem track, the grooves on Reflektor are given time to breathe and develop organically, resulting in tracks that eschew the wham-bang three-minute pop song structure in favor of loping, five to seven minute affairs.
Mostly, this pays off. Murphy knows how to build a moment, and the album is all the better for it. Somehow, the album’s longest and best tracks never overstay their welcome, as synth and guitar parts uneasily shift until nothing’s where it started out. “Here Comes The Night Time,” with its cooler-than-cool Haitian groove and dub-inflected bass, could be fifteen minutes long and I wouldn’t mind. The offset piano line alone is an earworm that has been stuck in my head for over a week. “Joan Of Arc,” another highlight, bumps along with sweet call-and-response vocals and one of my favorite bass lines in recent memory. “We Exist” marries a “Thriller”-esque groove to disco strings and heavily reverbed guitars, and the album’s title track makes good on the whole enterprise by merging glittery guitars, congas, bari sax, and longtime AF fan David Bowie (!) for a satisfying stomp.
On the other hand, this approach also means that the LP slightly sags in places, as any double album is wont to do. Editorial cuts, especially in the album’s late game, could have made Reflektor more concise and shapely, and probably saved it from needing to be a two-disc affair. “Porno,” with its kitten-synth and on-the-nose lyrics (“And boys they learn / Some selfish shit / Until the girl / Won’t put up with it”) is easily the weakest point in the album and probably could have been relegated to a b-side; similarly, “Here Comes The Night Time II” kicks off the second disc with soggy balladry and is forgettable enough that it wouldn’t be missed on the cutting room floor. Oh yeah, there’s also a *SPOILER ALERT* (is that a thing for music?) hidden track that is basically the entirety of the first disk – in reverse. It’s novel, but really disrupts the flow of the album. But hey, it wouldn’t be an Arcade Fire album if things weren’t just a little over-inflated for its own good. Arcade Fire may not like good old rock n’ roll anymore, but it’s safe to say they like whatever you’d call Reflektor – for the first time, it sounds like they’re really having fun doing it.
* * * * * * *
If you wanna be righteous, get in line
If you’re looking for Hell, just try looking inside
Reflektor is an album about duality in relationships – between listeners and music, between a band and its fans, between people. The second disc channels this by way of Black Orpheus, a 1959 film adaptation of the Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice set in Rio de Janeiro. In the myth, Orpheus travels to the underworld to retrieve his love who has died after being bitten on the heel by a serpent. Moved by his beautiful music, Hades agrees to let Eurydice leave with Orpheus on one condition: Orpheus cannot look at her until they both escape from the underworld. After a long journey, they reach the upper world. Orpheus, stepping into the sunlight first, looks back at Eurydice as she is still in the shadows; having broken his word, she is banished to the underworld and lost to him forever. The LP’s second half dedicates a song to each of them, essentially outlining the plot of the myth.
This is the first album in which Butler’s wife/partner in crime Régine Chassagne is not featured on lead vocals; previous records showcased her on some of the most pivotal cuts on each – “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains),” “In The Backseat” – but her presence is never felt more strongly than on Reflektor. She almost literally plays Eurydice to Win’s Orpheus, a ghostly, ephemeral echo that harmonizes with and punctuates his plaintive vocals.
Reflektor was always destined to be an Event Album, anticipated, debated, and salivated over, but Arcade Fire was determined to fuck with us anyway. Everyone knew something was coming. Rumors swirled for months of studio sessions in New York City with James Murphy. And then, when a fan tweeted at them:
“you’re my favorite”
The band responded, apropos of nothing:
“Thanks. Our new album will be out October 29th.”
That was it. No press release, no album title or track listing or cover art. Shots fired.
Then came the guerrilla marketing. Mysterious street art featuring the word REFLEKTOR started popping up in several major cities. The graffiti, later confirmed by Win Butler to be part of the campaign, was based on “Haitian veve drawings that are done in chalk or dirt.” The band remained mostly mum, occasionally leaking little tidbits, such as confirming the collaboration with Murphy (“I always imagined he and LCD would be kind of insufferable,” said Butler) or teasing a different direction for the music (a “mash up of Studio 54 and Haitian voodoo”). Reports started coming in of a band calling themselves “The Reflektors” playing secret shows in tiny dance clubs around Montreal, obscuring their identities with masks. Gradually, news outlets pieced it together; in the Age of the Internet, nothing is secret for long. But the band still got the last laugh – five days before the album release date, with no prior leaks and no announcement, Arcade Fire posted Reflektor in its entirety as the world’s longest lyric video on YouTube.
This trickery plays into the thematic content of the first half of the album as well. Much of the lyrics deal with the idea of reflecting a distorted version of yourself to better relate to others, the false refractions of our true selves that the modern age of communication forces us to project. “I thought I found a connector / turns out it’s just a reflector” croons Win on the title track. “We fell in love… I was staring at a screen.” Who needs face-to-face interaction when you can be whoever someone wants you to be online? Well, Arcade Fire does, for one. Their insistence on reinvention, on subterfuge, on playing make-believe as an unknown indie band instead of one of the biggest acts in the world really isn’t so curious. This is a band who unexpectedly won a much-deserved Album of the Year Grammy in 2011 for The Suburbs, beating out pop titans Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, and Eminem and single-handedly spawning a meme (see: whoisarcadefire.tumblr.com). At this point, they’re as accomplished and ubiquitous as they could ever want. The most valuable thing they’ve earned is the ability to control their own product. They don’t need to worry about “making it” anymore – they can just focus on making music.
Reflektor is currently available in stores, digitally and at arcadefire.com.