Perhaps we will remember 2013 in music as the year of hype: Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, Kanye’s Yeezus, and Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City all featured extensive and unconventional marketing campaigns, not to mention scores of crazed Internet fans fawning over their singles and leaked files. On-the-ground promotional stunts like projections, cryptic videos, and rooftop bus rides ranged from being labeled as fun and innovative to excessive and illegal. Mainstream, indie, whatever, it’s becoming impossible for fans to escape this new kind of “creative” advertising that’s sure to be the norm surrounding future high profile releases.
The tactics for Arcade Fire’s fourth studio album, Reflektor were no different – the Reflektor “logo”, based on Haitian veve drawings, sprung up in white spray paint and chalk on city walls all over the country. Even before it had an official name and release date, the album was hugely anticipated. In the month leading up to its release, the band temporarily became “The Reflektors,” performing secrets shows in masks and costumes, including a comical Saturday Night Live special directed by Roman Coppola.
After The Suburbs won the Grammy for Album of the Year in 2011, Arcade Fire officially made the jump from “indie” to the equally enigmatic label of “alternative.” As if a 9.7 Best New Album rating from Pitchfork for 2004’s Funeral gave them all the indie cred they could ever want, by 2011 they had tripled that success, gaining the favor of the music industry and began bordering on the disastrous! cringe-worthy! categorization of…(mainstream!).
I remember having an existential crisis — the kind you only have when you’re 16– when one day I came home from school and my mom was jamming out to The Suburbs in our kitchen. I was horrified. This was my music, my “generational anthems” containing themes that related to my life, and the fact that my mother was listening to and enjoying them drove me to near hysterics. Gradually, I came to terms with the band’s popularity, as well as my own ego. However comic and melodramatic, this scene from the fall of 2010 illustrates some kind of crossover that inspired maturity for my own personal musical passions, and reflects a bridge crossed for Arcade Fire. Three years later I approach Reflektor in a calmer, more levelheaded manner, but no doubt with the same vigor and eagerness of a new release by anyone’s favorite band.
Ever since it was announced that James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem and DFA fame would be producing at least part of Reflektor, fans of the band began anticipating a move to a more ambitious, dancier sound even before hearing any material. Of course, the title track and first single, released in early September, delivers and expands on those expectations, while also serving as a thematic flagship for the entire album and containing many of the usual Arcade Fire motifs. Lyrical offerings to the ambiguous yet omnipresent god that seems to be branded into lead singer and songwriter Win Butler’s psyche hit almost immediately, as well as the usual social commentary (“Our song it skips, on little silver discs/Our love is plastic, we’ll break it to bits/I want to break free”). While the song is devoid of a catchy hook (There’s no: “In the suburbs I/I learn to drive”), it sets a new tone for the band while still working within the Arcade Fire sound.
Like The Suburbs, Reflektor is a concept album, but this time the literal concept seems to be a bit broader. Allusions to Eurydice and Orpheus are everywhere from the cover art to some actual song titles, but the references to the Greek myth of the gifted musician who attempted to rescue his wife from the Underworld doesn’t give up any easy answers. Death and isolation, in the context of our modern technological advancements, pop up everywhere. The 85 minute album, including a mysterious Hidden Track, is split into two distinctive discs/sides. The first is a beat driven, upbeat progression that builds towards something (what that something is, I’m not quite sure). Disc 2 is a slow, melodic comedown, ending with the 11 minute Supersymmetry that includes five minutes of a minimal, ambient fadeout.
After “Reflektor” (title track), most of the first side is somewhat choppy. We Exist is perhaps the “danciest” piece on the record, starting off with a Michael Jackson-esque riff and going into a heavy beat. It takes you down from the grandiose title track, showing you the band’s ability to produce a catchy tune. “Still, We Exist” is the first example of a lyrical flatness that happens a few times in the first disc, the most blatant example being track five, “Normal Person.” “If that’s what’s normal now/I don’t want to know/If that’s what’s normal now/Mama don’t make me go,” borders on the cliché and boring. This is the biggest hole Reflektor falls into, but it’s mostly contained to the early songs.
Disc one peaks at Here Comes the Night Time, a sexy, brilliant portrait of tragic Haitian sunsets and societal discord. Twice, the addictive piano lick that resounds through the song devolves (or evolves, in my opinion), into a frantic pounding, and it’s in these moments where the ecstasy of the melody takes hold and makes it one of the band’s best. The song has simple charisma, and is extremely catchy. Closing strongly with You Already Know and Joan of Arc, harmonies in French, random TV announcers, and turned up guitars abound. Disc 1 of Reflektor leaves you on an optimistic high-you’ve just heard six tracks by a band who’s shaken up their sound pretty dramatically-and for the most part, it’s good. Win Butler is clearly in charge here, reinforcing that this is his record and his mind to pilot us through. At halftime, he’s doing a damn good job.
The power of a good album is usually in its ability to create an atmosphere in your head during and after you listen, and by the second disc, Reflektor achieves this with great success, even with a pretty significant change from the tunes extolled on the first side. “Here Comes the Night Time II” sets the mood for Disc 2, and the following six songs rival the second half of Funeral as the best stuff Arcade Fire has ever done. The duo of “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)” and “It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus)” mirror the placement and structure of the “Sprawl” tracks from The Suburbs, featuring vocals from both Win and his wife, Régine Chassagne. The attention to rhythm, in guitar, vocals, and especially the Haitian influenced percussion establish Awful Sound as the album’s masterpiece. Close behind is “It’s Never Over,” which may sound like a dance track, but as we’re begged to “just wait until it’s over”, vintage Arcade Fire seeps through, and for the first time I can see all seven band members together, jamming as a singular unit.
Even “Porno,” the last of the “dance” tracks and one that many have labeled as “filler”, delivers on an emotional level as a weird ode to adolescent humor and pain. Disc 2 ends softly with “Afterlife,” a classic “Arcade Fire-y” song that will please most fans, and with “Supersymmetry,” a slow builder that probably deserves to have the last five minutes cut off. Still, the mostly instrumental track is a beautiful end to a tightly composed, ambitious album.
On Reflektor, Arcade Fire shoots for the moon, and nearly gets there. I’ve listened to this album about a dozen times and I’m still struggling to comprehend a lot of it. Like the rest of their albums, this one’s a grower, and needs time to sink in. Still, it keeps up the conversation about arguably the best popular band that’s making music right now, and shows their incredible versatility and courage. Reflektor demands a lot of the listener, and that’s going to be tough for the fans who can’t let go of their early songs. Still, accepting a band’s necessity to breath and grow usually leads to fairer judgments, and with Reflektor, Arcade Fire has begun to cement their legacy.