Arcade Fire ‘Reflektor’ – Review

4 Nov

Arcade Fire have always been compelled to write about big subjects. They called their debut album ‘Funeral’, their second one ‘Neon Bible’ and their third ‘The Suburbs.’ Big subjects: Death, religion and modernisation. This is compelling because so few acts seem willing or able to explore this territory. However, it’s given the group an unfair reputation as reserved, dull, intellectual types. You get the idea that on their last record they started to believe this image of themselves. That made ‘The Suburbs’ quite tedious and tiresome, particularly as it hovered in the public consciousness much longer than ‘Funeral’ or ‘Neon Bible.’ It won them a Grammy for album of the year (this award is a huge deal in the states, despite having a hilariously erratic and badly misjudged list of winners) as well as a Brit. It seemed like the more thought-provoking and inspired their lyrics became, the more chugging and weary the music became (a theory that follows on their previous two albums to a much lesser extent). In certain respects ‘The Suburbs’ was a masterpiece, but few would deny that it was a fairly boring success.

It’s therefore easy to forget that when they burst on to the scene (and they really did burst) Arcade Fire were renown for their chaotic, energetic live shows. I used to watch and re-watch their top of the pops performance with absolute glee. I remember one of the group, blindfolded, walking into the audience banging his drum. In those pre-youtube days I’d never seen anything that spontaneous and cool on a mainstream music show. But by the time I actually got to see them live, a few years later, in a crowd, with thousands of other people, from quite a distance, they looked bored and I was bored. So that’s how I came to think of the band. Arcade Fire – a suited up, straight-faced, dull indie rock band. I’d forgotten that listening to them could warrant a physical reaction as much as an intellectual one. I’d forgotten just how urgent ‘Funeral’ was and just how necessary they are capable of being. On ‘Reflektor’ they remind me, in spirit, of the old Arcade Fire.

Watching them on their NBC special recently, I was reminded of that top of the pops performance. Here they were again, doing the unexpected; infiltrating a mainstream TV show, playing by nobody’s rules – not even each others. They were pulling shapes, posing, poking fun at themselves, making serious music but presenting it in a vivid and colourful way. ‘Reflektor’ is their most highly anticipated album to date and yet it feels like the one least burdened with expectations – that is to say, their expectations. James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem produced the album (his distinctive hands prints are all over the title track and ‘Afterlife’ in particular) and they couldn’t have chosen anyone better. Murphey is the master of making Intelligent music that also sounds great on the dancefloor. Here he is basically doing a Brian Eno cira ‘Achtung Baby’ or more recently ‘Mylo Xyloto’ – he is taking a tired ROCK band and, if not quite deconstructing them, then certainly loosening them up.

It’s to Murphey’s credit that despite his successful tinkering, the band never sound like anyone other than Arcade Fire. Which is to partially say they’re still fond of the big subjects. But it’s not just that; the melodies are surprisingly familiar, the song structures seem similar to those found on ‘Funeral’ and the musicians gel together perfectly. This album confirms that Arcade Fire have built their songs on a sturdy and recognisable template. The Beatles never sounded like anyone other than The Beatles, no matter what genres they tackled. Likewise it would seem that Arcade Fire have found a uniuqe and untouchable voice of their own – one that will hold the strain of experimentation.

‘Reflektor’ is essentially about loss. Modern loss. What we’ve lost as a society as well as individuals. ‘We fell in love when I was 19 and I was staring at a screen’ Win sings on the title track, a song about disconnects, red herrings and dead ends. The album’s also about greater loss. Death. It loosely retells the Orpheus myth, which of course deals with false perceptions. So it is here. Truths are half-truths; what seems permanent isn’t necessarily, what is self-evident isn’t really evident at all, and what is hidden is never hidden. ‘Reflektor’ is deep and deeply conflicted. Doubts abound; ‘we’re so connected but are we even friends?’ /  ‘our love is plastic’ / ‘no shit, we’re confused’ / ‘what if the cameras really do take your soul?’ In this paranoid world nothing is as it seems. Even the music feels like smoke and mirrors. Just how seriously are we meant to take the calypso pop of ‘Here comes the Night Time’ or the barbed rhetoric of ‘Normal Person?’ At points it’s as if the band are having a glorious meltdown.

‘Do you like rock n roll?’ Win whispers at the start of one song, ‘because I’m not sure that I do.’ This is another red herring, because despite the dance leanings, ‘Reflektor’ falls victim to the very worst of rock’s excesses. It’s a double album, and it therefore follows that it’s too long, too indulgent and stuffed with filler. The dreary ‘Porno’ and the hideously repetitive ‘Supersymmetry’ stand out as two songs that should have been axed, while most of these tracks would benefit from having their running times shaved. Predictably perhaps, disc one is the real highlight with barely a flaw on show. It somehow manages to be both more ambitious and eclectic than the second disc and is executed much more efficiently. The second disc on the other hand, whilst being shorter and more like traditional Arcade Fire, seems to drag unnecessarily. It’s something the producer should have sorted, but then LCD Soundystem were not immune to long songs either. Despite these shortcomings ‘Reflektor’ remains an admirable and ambitious work.

So Arcade Fire aren’t sure if they like rock n roll anymore, and they present themselves as a band who are happy to flirt with strangeness and indulge in excess and extravigance. Yet ‘Reflektor’ reveals a band who are very much a rock band, whether they like it or not – but one a lot more open and expressive than they used to be. They write songs about being confused in the modern world, about what they have lost and what they fear losing. And yet ‘Reflektor’ reveals a band with a distinctive personality, a band who have lost nothing over the years and gained so much. In the Orpheus myth on which ‘Reflektor’ is based, Orpheus was capable of charming everyone with his unique sounds; there in a nutshell we have Arcade Fire, a band back to their thrilling best.

8/10

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