When a band reaches the rarefied heights that Arcade Fire attained after 2010’s The Suburbs, it is to be expected that their follow up would receive a great deal of attention. When you couple that expectation with the band taking on James Murphy, the newly retired frontman of LCD Soundsystem as it’s producer, expectations can reach a fever pitch… and let’s be honest, expectations such as these can lead to quite the big letdown in the end. Fortunately, Reflektor, Arcade Fire‘s fourth studio album, and first double album (if that even matter anymore in our digital age [cue vinyl junkies getting ready to send me a fiercely worked email on the virtues of analog]), meet most of those expectations head on, and the result is a fantastic album that satisfies my desire for a bit of the old Arcade Fire as well as a clear progression forward.
I was hoping to get this review written immediately after downloading it on it’s release date. I was spending a few days listening to the album, getting my head wrapped around what they were trying to do, and forming my opinion… when, for reasons still unknown to me, the album simply disappeared from my iPhone and from my iTunes library completely. Actually… not quite completely, I still had the digital booklet… no music, but I had lyrics and some swirly pictures. Even in the iTunes store it would say that I had purchased it… but I couldn’t download it again. After a few weeks I became frustrated (even went to my hourly backups from the day I bought it… nada) and bought the album again, only this time the actual physical disc. When I slid that disc into my car’s stereo (1st disc I’ve played in this car in the almost three years that I’ve owned it), it felt like I was popping in an 8-track. It’s shocking how quickly modern technology can feel antiquated and quaint.
Whatever format you choose to listen to Reflektor, it’s a solid album that certainly could have used a bit of trimming, but is great nonetheless. The first thing I noticed was how much of an influence Murphy has had on the music itself. Whether it be the dub-step influences or the heavy beats found throughout, there were moments I could have imagined this being an LCD Soundsystem release… but Win Butler and company make this a decidedly Arcade Fire affair by virtue of being as honed in to their sound as they are.
The first track, the eponymous Reflektor, was the first single released months in advance of the album proper. When I first heard the song, I was a bit confused… this disco laden song is Arcade Fire? Once I heard how long and drawn out it was, I realized that, yes, it is most certainly an Arcade Fire song. The four on the floor bass drum leads the mind to strange polyester places, while Régine Chassagne’s French vocals lend an airy and sensual feel to a song who’s meaning is completely lost on me.
Quick side note: Do you listen to lyrics much when you listen to music? How much does a song’s lyric mean to you, and does it sway your feelings one way or another? I tend not to even notice what is being said until the twentieth time I hear something… and even then, I may just be saying the words without any thought to the meaning. Perhaps I’ll write something on this subject.
A pleasant surprise was the inclusion of David Bowie’s velvet vocals towards the end of the title track. When I first heard it, my thought was, “wow, Win Butler is doing his best Bowie there”… only to find out it was the man himself. It’s amazing how well David Bowie can sound like David Bowie. And even more amazing that I could ask my eleven year old daughter who that sounds like and have her correctly identify the voice (parenting win).
What much of the album has going for it is that it takes very familiar grooves and sounds culled over the span of the last thirty five years or so, and manages to make them sound new. Specifically the band seems to be playing in a sandbox made up of some late 70’s disco, early 80’s synths, and reggae influences beats and rhythms… all with a very particular James Murphy spin on it.
We Exist, the second track of the album dives into a sound filled with chorus on the guitars and a breathy vocal track that reminded me of some of the less frenetic Police tracks from their earlier albums; while Flashbulb Eyes, the third track, could have easily come straight off of the Valley Girl soundtrack (I’ve been wracking my brain trying to think of which specific song this reminds me off). My understanding is that after playing their first concerts in Haiti in support of The Suburbs, they took a great deal of the rhythms to heart and began infusing their music with Caribbean overtones… which is very noticeable in Flashbulb Eyes.
Here Comes the Night delivers the biggest combination of new stylistic choices, while also feeling like the most “Arcade Fire” of the bunch. Beginning raucously, then slowing itself down within the first few measures to a slow dub-feel… then ending in the wildly cacophonous way we’ve come to expect since Wake Up. My first thought when it started was, “yeah… something a bit more driven”, only to feel a bit of a let down when it slowed… and over time, my thoughts have completely reversed to the point where I feel frustration at knowing that the song is not what it appears, and look forward to the more laconic feel of a piano melody being plunked out one laborious note after the other… only to feel that disappointment at the finale. Go figure.
If I had any complaint about Reflektor, it’s that most of the songs go on a bit too long and feel a tad self-indulgent at times. I know that this is almost a hallmark of both Arcade Fire and James Murphy; one probably due to having such a huge ensemble as a band and wanting to showcase everyone’s talent, and the other having been weened in clubs with a healthy dose of psychotropic drugs coursing through the crowd. At times, this lengthy drag works… Joan of Arc for instance goes on a bit long, but it certainly sets the mood… and in the majority of the second disc, which takes on a more atmospheric and less driven edge, tracks such as Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice) and It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus), although great in concept (I adore the story of Orpheus, and I understand they used the classic film Black Orpheus as an influence), I feel like the album as a whole could have easily been trimmed down to a tighter and more accessible single album.
All in all, a fantastic return for a band that had many expectations set for them. Between a host of well crafted songs and a remarkably adept James Murphy at the helm, Reflektor seems to be growing on me day by day. Hopefully we won’t have to wait another four years before we get another outing with Win Butler and his gang of music making Canadians. And if you haven’t yet seen them live, make sure you catch one of their performances this tour… they are spectacular on stage.
Speaking of self-indulgence… for your consideration…
Oh Orpheus, you love-sick fool,
Cornelius J. Blahg