Arcade Fire – Reflektor

Reflektor (2013)


1. Reflektor 2. We Exist 3. Flashbulb Eyes 4. Here Comes The Night Time 5. Normal Person 6. You Already Know 7. Joan Of Arc 8. Here Comes The Night Time II 9. Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice) 10. It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus) 11. Porno 12. Afterlife 13. Supersymmetry


Jesus Christ this album is a mess. They do a complete 180 on almost everything I loved about The Suburbs, in a manner that doesn’t just indicate a healthy desire for artistic growth and branching out from their previous record’s style, but rather one that’s the equivalent of defiantly spitting in the face of everyone who appreciated what they were doing with said previous record. As a result, there’s a part of me that absolutely despises Reflektor. I mean like visceral “I want to punch Win Butler in the face right now” hatred that I normally reserve for U2. However, Arcade Fire are such talented and creative songwriters and conjure up just enough moments of legitimate brilliance on this album that I can’t help but give it any lower than a B-. Alas, there shall be no punching of Win Butler today. Dammit.

The one song that epitomizes by love/hate relationship with Reflektor is “Normal Person.” It’s the album’s most prototypical rock song, complete with chugging rhythm guitars, pounding piano, an energetic, gritted teeth vocal delivery, and relatable lyrics about social alienation. Enjoyed in a vacuum, it’s a great, head-nodding, teeth-gnashing rocker. However, it’s the only such song on the album – you can forget The Suburbs’ classic rock leanings. And, on top of that, the song begins with a faux stage announcement that finding Win snakily intoning: “Do you like rock ‘n roll music? Cause I don’t know if I do…” Wouldn’t want to be called the horrible pejorative “rockist” now, would we? Not only that, but the high note of the squealing guitar riff that constitutes the song’s main hook gets flubbed practically every pass through it, almost as if it were intentional. Basically, it sounds like the band is playing the song ironically, not unlike the hipsters Win spent much of The Suburbs railing against. As much as I like the song on a basic level, I can’t help but come away from it with the feeling that Win and co. would think I’m some unenlightened rube because of my enjoyment. This would be much easier to swallow if “Normal Person” weren’t surrounded on Reflektor by a bunch of bloated, muddled electro-sludge that seems aimed to repudiate the notion that old fashioned rock ‘n roll is still a viable form of musical expression circa 2013.

This approach would actually be entirely fine with me, believe it or not, if Arcade Fire were able to prove themselves to be consistently capable of playing the part of pioneering electronic post-rock troubadours. Like, for instance, the guy who produced all but two songs on Reflektor, James Murphy, who, as LCD Soundsystem, demonstrated what could be termed a genius for taking the influence of his classic rock heroes—Bowie, Talking Heads, Can, etc.—and putting his own idiosyncratic, modernized, electronic-focused stamp on it that actually did make traditional guitar rock sound stale and outmoded. For that reason, I’m actually surprised that Murphy was so involved with this record, because it’s completely unlike the legitimate chicness of LCD Soundsystem in that a lot of it sounds exactly like what it is – the work of a middle-aged rock band desperately and bumblingly attempting to be “hip” and “danceable,” primarily through the use of overloud, uncatchy, mid-tempo disco basslines and the addition of like forty thousand electronic embellishments on one overlong song after another.

Indeed, the problem with Reflektor is not that there aren’t any good songs, rock or otherwise, on it—there are several—but that those good songs are dragged out to absurd lengths and, in the process, overstuffed with a shit ton of unnecessary electronic percussion, obnoxious synths, “zany” backing vocals, and distracting echoey sound effects. Starting with the second problem first, Reflektor has three fewer tracks on it than The Suburbs, but is almost twelve minutes longer and feels like much more than that. This becomes especially apparent on the album’s second disc, on which the average song length is 6:30, and that’s including the effectively creepy half-song prelude “Here Comes The Night Time II” (though it also includes a dull, pointless six-minute ambient drone at the end of the otherwise strong, emotional closer “Supersymmetry,” originally written for the great Spike Jonze movie Her, that you can and should just skip). It’s not like these guys are laying down some sick jazz fusion experimentation or playing lengthy guitar solos; the songs just drag on and on at plodding tempos for no reason. It’s no surprise that the album’s shortest track, the punchy, strutting “Flashbulb Eyes,” is one of its best. As for the mix and instrumentation, well, it’s overbusy in spots to the point that it becomes difficult to actually hear what the fuck is going on. Like, is it even physically possible to dance to “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)” amidst that abrasive bassline, the shouty vocals, and all the other crap they piled onto it? Did they have to build “Porno” on a sleezy synth line that actually sounds like it belongs in a low budget porno? And why is the melody of the attempted “epic” “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)” so goddamned cutesy that it’s impossible for me to take it even a little bit seriously? Fuck, and I haven’t even mentioned how Win has suddenly turned into a douchebag moralizing philosopher or some shit, dropping a bunch of oh so cultured references to Greek mythology and stuff into predictable screeds about how everyone except him is brainwashed by technology.

So now that I’ve expended 900 words explaining why I hate this album, how can I possibly not give it a D? Well, that’s because when all the elements I’ve been complaining about—the electronic experimentation, the throwing-shit-at-the-wall arrangements, the philosophical bloviating—actually coalesce into coherent statements, the results are often incredible. Exhibit A: the title track, which for me is by far the best song Arcade Fire has ever done. It’s their “Sympathy For The Devil” – Win and Regine sing, partially in French, about the complications posed by love in the digital age (“We fell in love when I was nineteen/And now we’re starting at a screen” – taken from my own life) over a track that masterfully builds from quiet, funky percussion to a massive, spiraling climax and then back down again, only to build up yet again into a hectic coda featuring ghostly vocals from none other than David Bowie himself – heck of a cameo. Nearly as successful is the party jam “Here Comes The Night Time.” A lot was made in the lead up to Reflektor’s release of Haitian music’s influence on the record, but this is the only song on which that influence is at all obvious, with tinkly Caribbean piano, throbbing bass, and street carnival atmosphere. Those are the only two songs I’d put on the same level as The Suburbs’ highlights, but others, like “Joan Of Arc” (well, the faux-hardcore intro is stupid, but once it gets to the strummy part, it’s catchy as shit!) and “Afterlife” (which is suave enough to actually dance to) do actually earn their lengthy running times. Yup, Reflektor is still full of terrific songwriting – it’s just painfully diluted.

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