Arcade Fire – Reflektor
Alarm bells began to ring as soon as it was revealed that Arcade Fire’s fourth album, their follow-up to 2010’s massively successful The Suburbs, was to be that most pretentious of all rock band pretentions: a double album. As more details began to emerge – namely that the album is only one minute over the limit for one CD, and the final track features four minutes of the sound of a tape spooling back – those alarm bells became deafening.
Hints of arty-farty posturing and bloated self-worth are rarely met with approval from today’s discerning music fans – but if you think about it, that’s exactly what Arcade Fire should be doing right now. After conquering the world, it would be disingenuous for them to put out an album of two-minute, radio-friendly throwaway garage-rock tracks. It would also be a disappointment and a massive missed opportunity. A band the size of Arcade Fire are supposed to enlist the production help of someone like James Murphy and create a huge art.rock opus that sways and creaks under the weight of its own sense of magnificence – because if they can’t, who the hell can?
And so we have Reflektor, a sweeping and grandiose statement of an album that at times is majestic and at others is a bit too ostentatious for its own good – the perfect album from Arcade Fire at this stage in their careers then, and also one that has a very big question at its heart: what’s the point of music?
It’s not uncommon for bands to reassess their inspiration and motivation after huge success, and after The Suburbs made Arcade Fire arguably the biggest band in the world it would be natural for them to question where they go from here and, more importantly, what’s the point? For them, the answer was to explore the importance and beauty of music itself, using the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice as a general backdrop (that’s them on the cover).
Orpheus – for those without a Classics degree or the inclination to check Wikipedia – was anointed with the gift of music and used this gift to convince Hades to release his love, Eurydice, from the Underworld. He lost her at the last minute though, due to his impatience, and was left to lead a life of solitude with just his beautiful, mournful music accompanying him. He was basically the originator of the lovelorn ballad.
On Reflektor, Arcade Fire weave this myth of the ‘power of music’ into a grander statement upon art reflecting life. From the title, to them choosing to play gigs as ‘The Reflektors’, this is all one big artistic statement. The first sign of it comes on the title track which opens the album, with Win’s talk of resurrection: ‘Thought you would bring me to the resurrector / Turns out it was just a Reflektor’ and Regine singing about the ‘realms of the living and the dead’ in French: ‘Entre les royaumes / des vivants et des morts’. They lose their grasp on the theme at times though, and allow it to spill out into a boring statement about life as a rock star – resulting in weak and superfluous tracks like ‘Flashbulb Eyes’.
As well as setting out some rough lyrical themes, the title track also does a good job of introducing James Murphy’s role in the album – the stretched out grooves and multi-layered melodies are all trademark Murphy and contribute to a bold and hypnotising sound. ‘We Exist’ is where his production fingerprints are most evident as it sounds almost exactly like a song from The Suburbs remixed by LCD Soundsystem, all loose grooves and impeccable timing. Throughout the album, Murphy’s role is somewhat hit and miss. At some points it goes a bit far with the big orchestration and you’re left thinking it would be a much better album if they were able to rein in those instincts a bit, but the good outweighs the bad just about.
‘Here Comes The Night Time’ is one of the tracks that definitely showcases all that is good about Arcade Fire being directed by James Murphy. It’s loose, charming and works a bunch of different influences – including dub reggae – into a flowing and affecting experimental epic. Win is on great form as well, bringing in the albums main themes: ‘But if there’s no music up in heaven / Then what’s it for?’
‘Normal Person’ is a more straightforward rock song which hangs off a glorious pealing guitar line, while ‘You Already Know’ and ‘Joan Of Arc’ are destined to become huge Arcade Fire fan-favourites.
As we get into Side 2 of the album, the sheer size of it all starts to drag it back and listening begins to become a chore. The album is 75 minutes long and features 13 tracks, which averages out at not far off an average track length of 6 minutes – which really begins to take its toll when you get to the spaced-out double header of ‘Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)’ and ‘It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)’. Because of the song titles it’s clear that these two songs hold a lot of importance to the over-riding lyrical themes of the album, but by this point even ardent Arcade Fire songs will be feeling a bit too drained to dig deep and pursue those themes. It’s easier to let the sumptuous production and arrangements wash over you.
‘Afterlife’ perks the album up a bit though, offering a bit more of the up-tempo and intense Arcade Fire from Funeral and Neon Bible.
With a bit more conviction during the editing process, Reflektor could have been a truly masterful album – as it is it’s a gloriously self-assured and magnificently bloated artistic statement that will take a lot of listens before revealing all of its brilliance. In short, it’s the kind of demanding and rewarding album we need more of these days.