ARCADE FIRE: REFLEKTOR (2013)
1) Reflektor; 2) We Exist; 3) Flashbulb Eyes; 4) Here Comes The Night Time; 5) Normal Person; 6) You Already Know; 7) Joan Of Arc; 8) Here Comes The Night Time II; 9) Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice); 10) It's Never Over (Oh Orpheus); 11) Porno; 12) Afterlife; 13) Supersymmetry.
First and foremost, let us get this straight. From my (current) perspective, Arcade Fire are the... no, not necessarily the «greatest band of the 2000s», but simply the band of the 2000s, par excellence. Well, either that or Franz Ferdinand, I guess, but you can't really be the band of any particular decade if you do not manage to rise above and beyond all the given subcultures of that particular decade. Funeral was a great album, Neon Bible and The Suburbs less so, but all three had what it takes to convince me, and maybe you as well — there is really something about these guys that says, summarizes, and wraps up it all. Is there any other song released in those ten years that is more deserving of a generational anthem status than ʽWake Upʼ? Is there a better call-to-action epic than ʽWe Used To Waitʼ? Is there a better band out there that could offer a more satisfactory set of «Happy/Sad» packages where cynicism and idealism would be more elegantly and accurately settled next to one another? Individual flaws, filler issues, technical problems be damned, the 2000s belonged to Arcade Fire if they belonged to anyone at all.
But if there is one thing that I am almost certain about, it is that, with Reflektor, the 2010s no longer belong to Arcade Fire. This wouldn't be a big problem, of course (no band has been lucky enough to claim two decades of domination under its belt), if only we knew who exactly would claim the takeover — and if Arcade Fire had not released but its meager share of three albums in their decade of triumph, never landing another Funeral in terms of sheer gut impact. As it is, the change in style that they introduced here is quite likely to become permanent, and gradually transform them into an elitist esoteric act, which is, of course, better than transforming into a generic adult contemporary or New Age act (and, all things considered, is still better than having them break up, which is also a possibility), but...
If asked to come up with one quote from the album to describe my current feelings about it, that would, of course, be the refrain of the title track: "I thought I found the connector — it's just a reflector". There are good songs on the record, and some bad ones, and some that require a long time to decide, but one thing that it doesn't have is even a single tune of genuinely heartbreaking power, of which there were lots on Funeral, and at least two or three on each of its follow-ups. For Arcade Fire, Reflektor is that threshold which separates «meaningful accessibility» from «pretentious obscurity» — and while there is nothing inherently wrong with the latter as such, loving a record like this, for me, is out of the question. Recognizing its complexity and symbolism, recommending it for musicological study, sure. Shedding tears over its convoluted storylines and abstract feelings — thank you very much, I'd rather leave it to arthouse junkies.
On the formal musical side, Reflektor picks up right where ʽSprawl IIʼ left us last time — in a tight electronic grip, with synthesized loops, atmospheric backgrounds, and even drum machines prominently featured throughout, giving the band a mock-futuristic feel where in the past they would, on the contrary, bring out various antiquated instruments. This is already not a good sign, because it shows a lack of immunity for the relatively common «Eighties nostalgia» virus that has already infected scores of other artists — and it is particularly strange to see it spread over to Arcade Fire, a band with so many people playing so many different things. (No wonder Sarah Neufeld has been «demoted» from full-time band member to «additional musician» status — she simply does not have as much to do on the record as she used to; synthesizers and violins do not usually need one another too badly).
On the formal «artistic» side, Reflektor is something much more bizarre than just «Arcade Fire with synths». Its conceptuality is influenced by Haitian rara music, Marcel Camus' Orfeu Negro, Søren Kierkegaard, and other aesthetic objects and personalities that are all tied up in the grand scheme of things, since, after all, everything is made up of just a small bunch of elementary particles in the final run. Topping it off is the band's presentation of a split-off part of their personality as «The Reflektors», a masked alter ego that they invented for themselves in September 2013 and exploited in a bunch of secret gigs and video clips. Well — you might like the album or hate it, but a lazy affair it certainly is not: quite on the contrary, it is the band's most ambitious, pretentious, and (at least technically) complicated and multi-layered enterprise so far. That is more or less an objective assessment. Subjective assessment — this is one of those «off the deep end» albums where it never feels certain that the band itself knows what the hell it is doing.
Butler confesses that the original idea was to make a «short» album, so it is only natural that, in the end, it all turned into an unprecedented sprawl, stretched over two CDs without an adequate reason. The two parts, as many have noted, are stylistically filtered: Disc 1 is «rockier», concentrating more on dance-oriented, drums-'n'-bass-heavy tracks, whereas Disc 2 enters the twilight zone of «atmosphere», slowing down and getting in the mood — no wonder, since this is where the bulk of the Orpheus/Eurydice storyline is concentrated. Consequently, the second part is less immediately accessible, and will probably appeal more (in the long run) to hardcore fans, while the first part will be more benevolent to newcomers; in keeping with the spirit, the two singles from the album were ʽReflektorʼ from Disc 1 and ʽAfterlifeʼ from Disc 2 (to be fair, ʽAfterlifeʼ is also quite danceable, but still shares the same shadowy shape with the rest of the disc).
Now far be it from me to deny the presence of some really great Arcade Fire tracks on this album. ʽReflektorʼ itself is a good way to start off, using the somewhat corny dance-pop settings of the track as a background for human drama — after all, Black Orpheus, too, did pretty much the same with the somewhat corny Rio carnival settings — and the cold, mechanical drive of the song suits well its basic theme of the «inability to connect», with Win and Regine playing quite skilfully against each other (greatest pair since Lindsey and Stevie, I guess, except they really have to act it out, since nobody has reported on any alienation issues between the two). However, even ʽReflektorʼ is not entirely free from «what-the-hell-was-that?» musical ideas: the bubbly synthesizer riff that comes in after each chorus, sounding like a memento of an Eighties' video game, is either unintentionally awful, in which case they must have been high when recording it, or intentionally awful, in which case it is a Major Artistic Decision that we can Respect, Tolerate, or Despise, but never Ignore. I choose «Despise», because I just can't help it, but fortunately, that does not affect my general feeling towards the entire track.
Two other great songs on Disc 1 are ʽNormal Personʼ and ʽJoan Of Arcʼ. The former arguably is the most «conservative», old-school-Arcade-Fire number on the entire album, a grizzly-grunt against common denominators with distorted guitars and dry saxes from the long-gone era of glam rock and one of those dreamy, but witty «multi-Regine» bridges that nobody really knows how to bake except for good old Arcade Fire. And Win's excited "I've never really ever met a normal person..." coda is a classic finale, though a bit too simple and repetitive to send off real sparks. ʽJoan Of Arcʼ may be even better, with a suitable martial punch and another cool exchange between Win and Regine (for some reason, the call-and-response thing between the collective chorus of "Joan of Arc!" and Regine's «correcting» "Jeanne d'Arc" from the prompter's box is almost intensely cute) — that's the Arcade Fire we know and love.
But then there are the questions. ʽHere Comes The Night Timeʼ, for instance — is this really a good song? Is its electronic arrangement with a few piano chords sprinkled around really a good match for its poetry? Is the poetry itself worth your attention? "If there's no music up in heaven, then what's it for?" This sounds almost like a question I would like to re-address to the band: if there is no (well, almost no) music in this song, then what's it for? The piano bits are probably the best part of the song, and the noisy acceleration towards the end, which used to work so well on Funeral, does not work, because if the main part of the song does not wreck your emotions, no use counting on a mad frenetic coda for compensation. ʽYou Already Knowʼ reintroduces the stupid synth tones, moves along at top speed like a generic filler track on Neon Bible or Suburbs, and, judging by the sampled «glitzy» announcement of the band's entrance in the intro, should work as a piece of self-irony, but it really doesn't. It's all just... odd.
However, my biggest disappointment still concerns the second («moody») part. This is where the pretense takes over big time, and the band starts thinking of itself as disciples of some abstract Brian Eno — unfortunately, they never had Eno's musical genius, and while ʽAwful Sound (Oh Eurydice)ʼ thankfully does not totally justify its title, its electronic soundscapes are derivative and dull, and its attempts to mount a gargantuan ʽHey Judeʼ-esque coda are uninspiring: where the grand choral movement of ʽWake Upʼ came so naturally, this one sounds too forced, too self-conscious — a failed attempt at grandioseness. Much better is the counterpart, ʽIt's Never Over (Oh Orpheus)ʼ, driven by a handsome U2-style bass riff and featuring an intriguing duet between Win as Orpheus and Regine as Eurydice; this is easily my favorite number on the entire disc.
But that's about it. Much as I hate to admit it, I have no love for ʽAfterlifeʼ, a song quite true to its title because it sounds so totally stiff in its electronic shell. Its basic message has potential, and it could work both as a part of the Orpheus/Eurydice oratorio and an independent rumination on life after death in its own right — but if it is a frickin' anthem, give me the full power of Arcade Fire, the band, instead of a bunch of synthesizers rolling out the tired old tapestries of yesteryear (in fact, to hell with yesteryear, it was all done decades ago and way better on Bowie's Berlin trilogy, among other things). And if I have no love for ʽAfterlifeʼ, there ain't no use even beginning to discuss inferior tracks like ʽPornoʼ or ʽSupersymmetryʼ (except to mention that the latter ends with six minutes of gratuitous electronic noise that either represents the afterlife, or the perfect and imperfect symmetries, or somebody's pet dog left in the studio by mistake after hours).
It would be too crude, of course, to say that Reflektor fails to be a great album just because the band decided to rely on electronics (although that is part of the mis-deal). Most of all, it fails to be a great album because this time, the band really decided to open its jaw much wider than usual, and ended up twisting it all over the place. Too much Kierkegaard, not enough violin. Too much Greek mythology, not enough Regine (there isn't a single song here where she'd sing a clear, dominating lead vocal part). Too much general arthouse attitude — we need more songs like ʽNormal Personʼ and ʽWe Existʼ, and fewer songs like ʽAwful Soundʼ or ʽHere Comes The Night Timeʼ (a title that sounds way too close to the old Beach Boys disco disaster, by the way, to suspect sheer coincidence). Too long, too beset with problems and issues, too full of itself, too — pardon the bluntness — meaningless (if they are able to explain the point of ʽSupersymmetryʼ, I'd prefer rather not hear it) even though it pretends to be going deeper than ever before, and that is what irritates me to no end.
I certainly would not want to nail the point further by giving the album a thumbs down: ambitious projects carried out by fabulous artists, even if they turn out to be grandiose failures, do not deserve nasty slams. It was curious to hear this thing, and if I ever manage to get over the flaccid reaction to ʽAfterlifeʼ, trimming all the pompo-fat makes up for about thirty-five minutes of high quality late period (late period? we'll see about that) Arcade Fire music. But on the whole, it was simply wrong what they did here. If I want Orpheus and Eurydice, I'll take Monteverdi — here, it feels I've pretty much lost the connection. Much as I'd like to join the critical ooh la la, it'd just be dishonest. Instead, here's hoping the next album will be a «back to roots» revival, or else somebody is really going to get pissed.
Check "Reflektor" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Reflektor" (MP3) on Amazon