The February of 2011 ended a fairy tale for Arcade Fire. From acclaimed baroque indie-act established on the back of the excellent Funeral, Arcade Firereached a culmination of an adhoc trilogy in The Suburbs which took top honor at the 53rd Grammys. Arcade Fire climbed a musical summit the long way round; an album every 3 years, and a seal of quality on every one. But in the aftermath of their February win, Arcade Fire was left with a bronze imitation horn in their hands and a more pressing question of where to go next on their minds.
After much soul-searching, we have Reflektor to answer what comes after world’s end. It’s massive, it’s little messy and it’s one of the best records of 2013.
Beginning with the self-titled disco burner, “Reflektor” starts strong. Contemplation of the disconnected, digital age married to infectious dance grooves is almost a juxtaposition of ideas; splice the visceral with the premeditated. Keeping the dark dance going, we end up at a Gang of Four meets Michael Jackson shootout in “We Exist”. Building to a towering chorus of brassy guitar riffs and swirling strings, We Exist is a reminder that Arcade Fire’s trademark massive sound is on humming along on their 4th LP, it’s just been reworked.
Suddenly, Arcade fire whisks away to the Caribbean. “Flashbulb Eyes” despite it’s corny hook, takes some reggaeton drums and shifts into some some infectious Jamaican dub. Just as that song winds down, the carnaval of “Here Comes the Night Time” whips up. Speaking to his experience with co-conspirator and wife Régine Chassagne, Win Butler found a transfomative stay in Haiti which informs both Flashbulb Eyes and Here Comes the Night Time. Truly one of the highest soaring moments of Arcade Fire’s entire discography is found in Here Comes the Night Time’s frenzied, carnaval-exploding song bridge. Like the massive chorus of We Exist, this song also presents a different adaption of Arcade Fire’s knack for big moments.
No time to slowdown though, we’re into an anti-conformist rock jam on “Normal Person”. Piano sprinkles cradle Win’s lyrics of insecurity and angsty rebellion which tear into giant power chords and streaky, fidgety leads. It’s a brilliant song that crystallizes the entire first side of Reflektor as ironic, goofy performances of performances. Down to the opening awkward my-first-gig small talk at the beginning of the song, Win reaches a level of meta-awareness in this projected angst power chord- rebellion to make a normal muscular rock jam to protest normal muscular rock jams. In their own way, Arcade Fire is having a great time on side a, mixing a message with a tounge and check guise for every track on the first side. This is Arcade Fire’s Sgt.Pepper’s moment, jumping through time and influences, and mixing textures to create fresh vignettes for every song the albums first half.
Then there was silence, here comes the actual night time.
“Here Comes the Night Time II” ushers in side b and an entire emotional/tonal shift in tow. Beginning with sullen strings, a wavering sythn line rises heroically with the rest of the band; the band is through the mirror. The following two songs “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)” and “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)” are allusions to the greek myth of Orpeus, the musician so skilled he convinced Hades to let him bring his wife (Eurydice) back from the underworld. In between Awful Sound’s Bowie-meets-Beatles choruses and It’s Never Over’s ragged comat guitar leads and chants, it’s hard not read into this pair of songs. They are almost certainly about Régine and Win. Allusions to faith, failure, death and heartbreak make this vignette emotionally resonant in a way that inherits the emotional weight of The Suburbs. It’s mesmerizing stuff and the loving relationship between Win and Régine culminates wonderfully in the beautiful duet between the two vocalists on “Supersymetry”, Reflektor’s closer.
Speaking of Supersymetry, the songs on the first side twist in the breeze on occasion, but the songs on the second side flail in a bit of a gust. It’s a possibly deliberate move to stretch the atmospheric nature of the second side, but things like the extra 15 minutes of noise, existing as a sonic epilogue, feel a bit too indulgent by the dead end of side 2.
Outside of the doomed lovers theme, there are some great tracks that fit the more earnest, less-ironic expression of side b as well. The wonderfully haunting Robert Smith-meets-chillwave nature of “Porno” is a song that sticks out with its luring shadow of sexual obsession and objectification. The flickering existential synthjam of “Afterlife” also shines with great percussion. The second side really shows why LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy was enlisted for production duties on Reflektor. With the heavier use of electronics on the second side, the mock plays of side A are placed in the rearview and side b points toward an electric feel for the future.
This album is obsessed with scope. The wide arena flooding anthems of “Wake Up” are almost a decade in the books, and still,Arcade Fire does not do small. They think big and perform even bigger. The size bloats a little on Reflektor, but the colossus they’ve erected on their 4th LP displays a titanic level of ambition, impressive execution and artistic bravery. Arcade Fire is starting a new tale, though I’d imagine it would be more Philip K. Dick than Disney this time round.