November 1, 2013 in Album Reviews
It must have been quite an interesting crossroads for Win Butler and his ragtag band of Canadian art rockers, deciding what direction to take on their fourth and much anticipated studio release, having the option to crank out an identical record to widely popular The Suburbs or risk everything on a massive experimental double album that could challenge how their increased fan base would perceive them. Prior to 2011 when their third studio album The Suburbs, took the music world by storm snagging Album of the Year at the Grammys, Arcade Fire had written Funeral and Neon Bible, what many consider to be two of the most complete albums of the 2000s under their belt, and for many indie acts that would have been the pinnacle or ceiling of a career. The Suburbs broke through that ceiling, shattering any preconceived notion of their limitations with tales of societal vultures and nostalgia, laid on top of such vast and universally appealing musical diversity which was enough to stun the Gagas and Katy Perrys of the world setting off Twitter with thousands asking “Who the fuck is Arcade Fire?”, something the band ironically embraced by emblazoning the phrase on t shirts. It was a moment that rendered the view of Arcade Fire being indie and a semi-well-kept as a thing of the past, increasing their impact to a global scale.
Following a sold-out world tour and a well-deserved break, the cryptic campaign to promote Reflektor began this past August, with unannounced chalk drawings and banners on the sides of buildings in major cities across the US, the surprising news that James Murphy the founder of the now defunct LCD Soundsystem would produce the album, and the release of the self-titled gloomy disco influenced single “Reflektor” featuring backing vocals from none other than David Bowie. But other than a few major details so little was known about what exactly Arcade Fire was aiming for, with the band releasing only the occasional video clip of a jam session with no audio, or posting small teasers of album tracks. Looking back on how secretive they went about controlling the release of details, it seems it was for good reason, because the vast majority would have doubted the unheralded mixture of art rock, moody disco, Haitian influences, and Talking Heads styled new wave.
Arcade Fire’s modern day version of a Greek epic that combines the tale of Orpheus with their own tribulations begins with the highly infectious dark disco groove “Reflektor”, laying the groundwork for what is a 75 plus minute double-album journey through a dimly lit world isolated from all surroundings and yet just close enough to yearn for some kind of intimacy. Murphy coats the album with a hazy modern disco sheen, erasing much of the Springsteen influence that characterized The Suburbs. The title track embodies this the style the most with the thick humming synthesizers, hand drums, signature 70s drum beats, topped off with David Bowie adding vocals during the bridge. The core idea that Butler means to convey on the album and especially on the title track is that the 21st century generates isolation and a very casual disconnection in this online based society that supposedly gives people deeper insight into each other’s lives, voicing a deep concern for growing apart from bandmate and wife Regine Chassagne, mirroring how Orpheus loses his love Eurydice, with the lines “We’re so connected but are we even friends? We fell in love when I was 19 and now we’re staring at a screen.” Being no stranger to delivering emphatic album-sized statements they do succeed in connecting themes that at times seem disjointed and messy, evoking emotions that are conflicted and yet so removed and distant.
But where Reflektor lacks the dramatic sentiment of its predecessors it makes up for with daring musical inventiveness. Sudden time changes and mood shifts have been synonymous with the bands finest moments on older tracks like “Black Wave/Bad Vibrations” and “Suburban War”, taking moments that are already the epitome of gloomy and simply hurling them into a much heavier and darker realm without any warning. Similar moments occur here on “Here Comes the Night Time” with an intro featuring rapidly firing guitars and drums before stopping on a dime and simmering down with a danceable Haitian drum beat, warbled synth and a melodic refrain. The same odd Frankenstein-like process is repeated on the final track of the first album “Joan of Arc”, taking a rather abrasive punk beginning, something not exactly retrofitted for a band more concerned with aesthetics than blistering rage, and blending it with a rhythmic glam rock body. Their finest moment on the album comes in the form of the high wattage rock n roll track “Normal Person” with ten tons of distortion and a whiny lead guitar in the chorus and the message that “normal” is a term to suppress individuals, as Butler depicts a reality that sounds like a plot from the Twilight Zone, asking the question “Is anything as strange as a normal person? Is anyone as a cruel as a normal person”, before delivering a perilous warning in the chorus “They will break you down till everything is normal now”. Then theres the outlandish blend of psych rock and reggae on “Flashbulb Eyes”, which doesn’t sound half as bad as one might think. Perhaps in the past Arcade Fire could have been somewhat vulnerable to being described merely as discontent indie rock, but the unexplored expansive sounds that they include on this record make it nearly impossible to make accurate comparisons to most other bands, or to box them in to a particular sound or label.
As to be expected, Regine Chassagne, the unspoken MVP in the background, provides a light to Butler’s cynicism and harsh realities with her angelic vocals that possess siren-like qualities. Despite the fact that she doesn’t have a track singing lead vocals like she did with “Sprawl II” or “Empty Room” on The Suburbs, some of the albums best choruses and bridges are due to her ability to channel such unfiltered emotion and beauty into condensed moments like the chorus on “Its Never Over (Hey Orpheus)”, or the bridge on “Afterlife” singing “When love is gone where it does it go? Where do we go?” The lyrics could be simplistic, complicated, or even in French as a lot of her verses in the past have been, but as she sings on “Joan of Arc”, “If you shoot you better hit your mark”, something she does very well when given the opportunity.
If there is one complaint about Arcade Fire’s statement of grandeur, it’s how it goes out with somewhat of a whimper, not with exclamation or closure. After carrying a heavy concept successfully for 12 tracks Reflektor quietly trails off on “Supersymmetry”, a soft ambient conclusion which doesn’t seem to do the album justice. But aside from this slight misstep, Reflektor is spot on in achieving everything it set out to do, employing the concept of tying together a modern day world that they refer to as “the reflective age” with ancient mythology and intertwining their reliable art rock approach with new territory sonically. Hearing the dramatic swelling strings traded in for synthesizers on the majority of these tracks does cause one double take and listen multiple times to realize that this is in fact the same band that released “No Cars Go” and “Wake Up”, but it would be foolish to assume that Butler would take the beaten path and retrace the past. On paper this wouldn’t be the sort of business venture you’d get an approved loan for or bother investing in, a double album based on Greek myth with a Haitian spirit. But if Arcade Fire finds themselves outraged, telling stories that warn against indoctrination, hypocrisy or fear mongering, and the man at the helm is Win Butler, the far-fetched and bizarre always feels palatable.
Essential Tracks: “Reflektor”, “Joan of Arc”, Normal Person”, “Its Never Over (Hey Orpheus)”, “Afterlife”
Watch Arcade Fire play “Normal Person” on The Colbert Report below: