Oct 30, 2013

Music Review: "Reflektor" by Arcade Fire

By Ian Cory

Arcade Fire is a band that almost necessitates hyperbole and dramatic over-analysis. For example, when I was about halfway through Reflektor I thought to myself about how the four Arcade Fire full lengths alternate between daylight records and nocturnal records, before correcting myself and noting that 2010’s The Suburbs actually follows the progression of the sun and gradually gets darker as it goes. This sort of mental masturbation is usually reserved for bands that have long since broken up, died, or otherwise found themselves frozen within the canon. Arcade Fire are perhaps the only active band (here comes the hyperbole again) four albums deep into their career that warrants this kind of discourse. They’ve become the biggest indie rock band, perhaps not in actual record sales or impact, but in presentation and scope. As such, even when they deliberately try and eschew their “rock band-ness” as they do on Reflektor, they fall squarely into two quintessential rock clich├ęs: releasing a massive and overly ambitious double album and adopting the persona of a fake band in order to explore new themes.
           
Make no mistake about it, Reflektor is a long album and it feels like one. Even if one were to snip the sound collages closing out each disc, this album would still be Arcade Fire’s longest by far. Unlike The Suburbs, which achieves its epic length by having a ton of songs, Reflektor finds a variety of ways to stretch out otherwise normal Arcade Fire tracks into the 6+ minute territory without losing their core identity. And despite the cries of the band having gone disco in the wake of the title track’s early release, most of the genre experiments on Reflektor are merely expansions on tendencies that Win Butler and co. have always dabbled with. The band’s full-length debut, Funeral, spent as much time emoting over pulsing dance rhythms as it did with baroque-pop, and literally every recording they’ve released has toyed around with multi-segmented song suites. What Reflektor does differently is accompany those latent songwriting influences with matching production techniques. Owen Pallet’s excellent as per usual string arrangements are now joined by soulful saxophone sections courtesy of Colin Stetson and producer James Murphy’s world percussion and analog synthesizers. Instead of just adding this host of new sounds on top of their already enormous arsenal of timbres, most of the songs strip away any consistent accompaniment in favor of a gradual ebb and flow of each instrument, keeping each section of the song fresh even as trail away from conventional song structures.

This expansive and patient approach to the record is responsible for both its highest successes as well as its more glaring failures, which almost entirely fall along either side of the album’s two disc divide. After a strong start from the title track and the equally slinky “We Exist” the first disc suffers from a series of interesting ideas sucked dry by overproduction. “Flashbulb Eyes” uses dub influenced delay and tape effects to hide a lack of interesting melodies or lyrics, and on “Here Comes The Night” the sudden shift from pleasant Talking Heads funk into a high paced street samba should work on paper but feels oddly static due to Butler’s vocals remaining just as detached as they did during the slower sections. Of course this disconnect between music and vocals could very well be intentional as much of the record deals with the way people fail to relate to each other, either due to the passage of time, or overstimulation from technology. But as much as I advocate for this kind of form/content synergy, it’s only ever going to work if the resulting music is effective on a visceral level. This is where Reflektor’s second disc excels. For example, “Porno” takes a dark and sexy (by Arcade Fire standards at least) synth groove and uses it as a basis for a deconstruction of the way modern culture’s indulgences make it difficult to have a relationship with any real intimacy.

To aid in their portrayal of modern culture as nothing more than digital smoke & mirrors, Arcade Fire have taken to billing themselves as “The Reflektors.” With their matching white outfits and heavy application of glam makeup, it’s easy to see this as part of their disillusionment with rock music, something they make very explicit on the deliberately messy and faux-live “Normal Person”, but at this point inventing a surrogate band and embracing dance music as a credible influence are both about as old and tired as any other rock trope. There’s Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars as well as their spiritual descendents like Omega & The Mechanical Animals* and The Black Parade. There’s U2 on Achtung Baby, Talking Heads on Remain In Light, and Radiohead on Kid A. Some of these are acts that Arcade Fire are clearly avid fans of, which makes this transformation a lot complicated than it should be. Are The Reflektors a criticism of inauthentic digital culture or are they a celebration of aesthetics that Arcade Fire view as being more emotionally valid than traditional rock signifiers (despite, as I keep saying, being rock signifiers themselves)? Either way, the one consistent thread between these two lines of thought is disgust with the present that places Arcade Fire at the center of realness, which ultimately makes Reflektor come across as way more smug and self-righteous than it deserves to be.

It should be no surprise then that the album is best when it plays for human drama rather than cultural commentary. When they want to, Arcade Fire can tug at my heartstrings more effectively than any other band on earth, and on the duo of “Awful Sound” and “Its Never Over” they pull them hard. The 12-minute saga is a whirlwind of musical styles, from Afro-Cuban rhythms to Beatles worship to gripping and ominous disco, all anchored by the tragedy of being unable to salvage a failing relationship and the enduring pain that it will leave. Here Butler’s tendency to keep his lyrics on the blunt side works to the bands advantage, raising the emotional heft of the lyrics to a drama worthy of its mythological metaphor. This kind of work is where Arcade Fire excels, and its what I would have liked to see them do more of on Reflektor. But that’s the price of becoming something larger than life; people will often see you how they want to, not how you really are.

Grade: B

*Hearing “they love you, then they kill you, then they love you again” over a glamed out swung groove on “Joan Of Arc” gave me huge flashbacks to Marilyn Manson’s Mechanical Animals, another concept record about the hollowness of celebrity and modern culture. Given that I got similar vibes from Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead” and that Manson’s former mentor, Trent Reznor, had a huge artistic success with Hesitation Marks, maybe 2014 will be the year Manson finally gets his shit together for a real comeback. Doubtful, but 9th grade me is keeping his fingers crossed.
**Just a side note. Where are the Regine songs? She had lots of great backing vocal moments on this record, but I could have used at least one full song from her.

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