Album Review: Arcade Fire, ‘Reflektor’

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As a fan of Arcade Fire’s last release, 2011’s Grammy-winning success story The Suburbs, I found myself somewhat dumbfounded when the troupe performed on Saturday Night Live earlier this fall. Here was a band with a penchant for stirring, cathartic live performances reduced to stumbling through half-baked, limp-wristed disco grooves. Win Butler sang somewhat off key (as usual) but this time he conjured precious little passion to mask the flaws in his quavering voice. The Fire’s typically stacked instrumentation sounded empty and unengaged, and to add insult to injury, they looked ridiculous. This was not the image of a world-conquering arena rock band but rather a confused one.

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And yet I’m pleasantly surprised to report that Reflektor succeeds far more often than it fails. The record’s shift in sound and direction—originally hinted at by Suburbs highlight “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”—resonates with greater validity as a product of the studio, even with its initially daunting 75-minute track listing. Arcade Fire’s latest album proves the power of working with the right producer, too; LCD Soundsystem mastermind James Murphy was put on Earth to craft records that sound like Reflektor. It’s lush and sparse and welcoming and isolated all at once, a chameleonic approach befitting of Butler’s conflicted lyrics.

Murphy applies reverb and distortion liberally to yield great sonic impact out of sparse melodies and rhythms, as on “Porno” and “Reflektor”, and his careful tweaking keeps grander efforts like “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)” and “It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus)” from unraveling in awe of their scale. Light waves of keyboards wash around the sides of the stereo spectrum, rarely distracting from the propulsive bass and drums that hold this album together. Guitars interject only when needed to make a statement or build mood. We’ve seen the Fire strip down like this for one or two songs but never at such length.

For a double album from such a grandiose band, many of the best tracks on Reflektor argue in favor of simplicity. “Afterlife” milks nearly six propulsive minutes from staccato synths colliding with endless disco bass and drums. The rest of the band piles atop this steady groove—as to be expected for an Arcade Fire song—but they do it with tact, gradually introducing each layer in a way that the existential dread of Win’s lyrics don’t totally click until the song nears end:

“When love is gone
Where did it go?
And where do we go?

It’s just an afterlife
It’s just an afterlife with you”

Even the extended format of Reflektor simplifies things for listeners. Disc 1 is filled with simple, stomping grooves and jangly rockers while disc 2 holds the spacier and more contemplative material. And if the physical divide wasn’t enough, the band adds a cold and airy interlude to disc 1 closer “Joan of Arc” as it creeps right into the subdued “Here Comes the Night Time II”, establishing the mood of the second disc from the get-go. Both tracks are absolute standouts: “Joan of Arc” fires away with a jarring, breakneck punk intro before settling into thunderous rhythms reminiscent of Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll, Pt. 2”, while “Here Comes the Night Time II” repurposes the moody balladry of The Suburbs for a cracked reflection of its disc 1 counterpart:

“I hurt myself again
Along with all my friends
Feels like it never ends
Here comes the night again”

It’s one of the few truly effective lyrical passages on the album, and if there’s anything to complain about on Reflektor it’s that, much like the obvious album title, the writing is painfully on the nose. Win Butler continues his fixation with the most basic of rhymes here as he strings together amateur couplets like “When your love is bad, I don’t know why you’re so sad” with unfortunate ease. It’s only on the alienation anthem “We Exist” that Win impresses both lyrically and rhythmically; the song’s extended vocal phrases force him to drift away from tried-and-true patterns:

“They’re walking around
Head full of sound
Acting like
We don’t exist
They walk in the room
And stare right through you
Talking like
We don’t exist
But we exist”

Is Reflektor ridiculous? Of course—we’re talking about Arcade Fire, after all—but by the looks of their SNL special the band is finally cognizant of the silliness that comes with such ambition. This is an album jam-packed with criticism of the digital age, self-conscious musings on what it’s like to be a Big Important Rock Band, allusions to Greek mythology, somewhat jarring appropriations of Haitian music and occasional vocal interjections in French (courtesy of the woefully underutilized Régine Chassagne). But it’s also a beast of a rare breed, the double album that doesn’t overstay its welcome, and even then it offers a deliberate divide to less patient listeners. Whether through wondrous sound or thought-provoking subject matter or good old cathartic release, every song on here succeeds in some regard. In a year of the overstuffed album-as-event we should be thankful Reflektor is more Random Access Memories than 20/20 Experience. It may be absurd, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t a satisfying listen.

4 / 5 stars

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