Album Review: Arcade Fire’s Fantastic “Reflektor”
As those of you who have already heard “Reflektor” no doubt know, the album is fantastic, one of the best of the year for sure, whether the Grammys take notice or not.
Reflecktor, Arcade Fire.
By Adam Ellsworth
As you have no doubt heard by now, the Canadian-based indie-rockers Arcade Fire have a new album out this week It’s the band’s fourth full-length and it’s called Reflektor, though you’ve no doubt heard this by now too. You have no doubt heard about all of this already because the release of the new Arcade Fire album is something of an event. If you care about this type of thing then you’ve no doubt already listened to Reflektor, at least once, since the band started streaming it for free last Thursday. This of course assumes you aren’t someone who feels that the release of Reflektor is such an event that you can’t soil the experience by listening to it on your computer, and have decided to wait for the physical album, which is spread across two discs, to be released in stores on Tuesday so you can purchase a copy of your very own and listen to it on your crystal clear stereo.
How did we get here? Isn’t rock music supposed to be dead? Or at the very least isn’t it supposed to be a niche genre like opera or jazz? How did the release of a rock album become an event in 2013?
First and foremost, it must be stated that Arcade Fire are kind of terrific, and have been since the release of their debut album, Funeral, in 2004. If this weren’t true, then the rest wouldn’t matter. Unfortunately though, we know that quality alone has never meant less than it means now. So to start to answer our question we have to look back to February 2011, when, to the outrage and befuddlement of everyone on Earth who doesn’t read Pitchfork, Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs won the Grammy for Album of the Year. Even the band was shocked. Frontman Win Butler summed up the situation better than anyone when he took the microphone to accept the award and asked, “What the hell?”
A win is a win no matter how many Grammy viewers had no idea who Arcade Fire were. For rock fans, even the ones who could care less about the Grammys, the victory was a vindication. Arcade Fire were now, like, a thing…in the actual culture…and they didn’t even have to sell out!
Of course, the next two Grammys for Album of the Year went to Adele (which, admittedly, she absolutely deserved) and Mumford & Sons (which, well, let’s not get started on them), so it’s not like an indie-rock revolution had broken out. But Arcade Fire now had a little extra cache and they weren’t going to waste it. In late 2012, it was announced that not only were they working on the follow up to The Suburbs, but they were doing so with former LCD Soundsystem leader and all around hip dude James Murphy.
Then, once the album was finished and it was time to really crank the hype machine, the band embarked on a guerilla marketing campaign that resulted in Haitian veve drawing inspired posters being put up on buildings around the world. In early September, when the album’s title track was released as a single, not one but two separate videos were sent out to spread the word. The first was interactive, and allowed the viewer to manipulate what was happening on their computer/tablet screen even while they themselves appeared in the video through the magic of webcam technology. The second, more traditional, clip was directed by the illustrious Anton Corbijn and was let loose into the world on the same day.
Since live television hasn’t been entirely killed off yet, Arcade Fire appeared on Saturday Night Live at the end of September to perform “Reflektor” and “Afterlife.” The band really flexed their muscles though with their concert special, Here Comes the Night Time, which aired on NBC immediately following SNL. What’s that? A rock band? With their own network television special?! In 2013! To give one last push, the band also showed up last week (as “the Reflektors”) on The Colbert Report to take part in some witty repartee with the host and perform “Normal Person” and “Afterlife.”
So, to recap, at least part of the reason Reflektor feels like an event is because Arcade Fire went out of their way to make sure it feels like an event. And why not? You know what they say about not tooting your own horn.
Thankfully, it turns out Reflektor warrants much tooting. As those of you who have already heard it no doubt know, the album is fantastic, one of the best of the year for sure, whether the Grammys take notice or not. Described in an interview by Butler as a “mash up of Studio 54 and Haitian voodoo,” it still sounds like Arcade Fire, just Arcade Fire you can shake your ass to. Speaking of ass shaking, on “Here Comes the Night Time” Butler sings, “It starts in your feet and it goes to your head, and if you can’t feel it then the roots are dead.” In short: move people!
“Here Comes the Night Time” is the soul of Reflektor and in typical Arcade Fire fashion the song gets a second, modified, airing later with “Here Comes the Night Time II.” The album isn’t solely about dancing though. “Normal Person” is a straight ahead rocker that’s far more indebted to Neil Young than LCD Soundsystem, while “Joan of Arc” begins with punk fury before a steady guitar rhythm takes over. It’s hardly disco, but you can definitely groove to it.
If disco is what you’re looking for, then the seven and a half minute opening title track is for you. Even if you haven’t heard the album yet, if you’re a rock fan you’ve probably heard “Reflektor” at some point in the past two months, so you already know how beat-ific (and beatific) it is. You also already know that that really is The Thin White Duke himself, longtime Arcade Fire supporter David Bowie, providing backing vocals on the song. You can’t say that about “Get Lucky” now, can you.
“Awful Sound (Oh, Eurydice),” the second song of the album’s second half, slows Reflektor down a bit. Keyboards mimic swelling strings as Butler sings, “I know there’s a way, we can leave today.” It’s the type of big, emotional, song Arcade Fire are known for and do so well. Throughout the tune, and throughout the album for that matter, Butler’s vocals are joined by those of his wife, Arcade Fire co-founder Régine Chassagne. Whether she’s singing in English or French (as she sometimes does on Reflektor), Chassagne brings a certain je ne sais quoi to Reflektor. She certainly has a distinctive voice, polarizing at times, but unmistakable. Plus, she’s of Haitian descent, which lends that “voodoo” description some credibility.
Any album that’s eighty-five minutes long is bound to drag a little, and it’s the second half of Reflektor that drags the most. Not that you should skip it. There’s still plenty to enjoy, especially “Afterlife,” which combines the emotion of the Suburbs song “We Used to Wait” with the dance beats found on the rest of Reflektor. “Oh, when love is gone, where does it go?” Butler and Chassagne sing in unison on “Afterlife.” The line “And where do we go?” follows. Are they asking “where do we go” after love is gone? Or, “where do we go” after we’re dead? It’s not totally clear, and it’s the ambiguity that gives the lyric its power. Typed out, the line seems trite, like pop philosophy at its worst. Sung, the way Butler and Chassagne sing it, it seems like one of the most important questions we have to answer. Perhaps because it is.
The eleven minute “Supersymmetry” closes Reflektor. Yes, eleven minutes is awfully long, but the song is actually a beautiful final statement. During the first half, a repeated synth figure plays over soaring strings to create a film score effect. Then, around the six minute mark, the song appears to come to an end. It doesn’t. Over the next five minutes “Supersymmetry” sputters, bleeps, and swoons. It does everything but completely fire back up again. Is this where songs go when they’re finished? Has the song crossed over? And if it has, then where do we go after we’ve crossed over?
None of us can answer that question for sure, no matter how many times we’ve listened to Reflektor. We’ll keep wondering though. And we’ll keep listening.
Adam Ellsworth is a writer, journalist, and amateur professional rock and roll historian. His writing on rock music has appeared on the websites YNE Magazine, KevChino.com, Online Music Reviews, and Metronome Review. His non-rock writing has appeared in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, on Wakefield Patch, and elsewhere. Adam has a MS in Journalism from Boston University and a BA in Literature from American University. He grew up in Western Massachusetts, and currently lives with his wife in a suburb of Boston. You can follow Adam on Twitter @adamlz24.