TheReflektors

When Win Butler howls, “Just a reflection of a reflection of a reflection of a reflection of a reflection,” my mind shoots instantly to Trent Reznor proclaiming, “I am just a copy of a copy of a copy,” setting the stage for Nine Inch Nails’ recent synth-pop return Hesitation Marks. Those guys, both brooding alt-rock icons with enough pop clout to bum-rush the mainstream from time to time, are nonetheless on the opposite ends of the personality spectrum, with Reznor holding it down for the dark side with a veteran’s poise while Butler pumps the positivity, albeit in spectacularly anguished fashion. Whereas Reznor has always been in touch with his villainous impulses, Butler’s songs render him a troubled hero. Reznor carries the weight of his conscience on his shoulders, but Butler’s load is the weight of the world.

Just as they approach their music in markedly different moods, they’re getting at the idea of replication from completely different perspectives. Whereas Reznor sees himself as just another part of modern life’s hollow artifice, Butler is sure there’s something real burning inside him. It’s just obscured by the requisite guilt, fear, and pride that go along with life as a human being and the extra layers of distance that come with being human in the age of Google Glass.

In the context of “Reflektor,” the lead single and title track from Arcade Fire’s upcoming fourth LP, that internal crackling takes the form of a longing that extends beyond time and space into unseen dimensions including, if Google’s translator hasn’t failed me, “the realm between the living and the dead.” The song pits Butler and his wife, band co-leader Régine Chassagne, as souls separated by some kind of divine chasm or the recesses of cyberspace or both, lost in a hall of mirrors and desperate to reconnect. There are lots of ideas to parse here — the detachment that develops from living through our devices, the ways we manipulate our online personas to keep our true selves hidden, the way that process can foster narcissism rather than genuine community — but one thread in particular got me all wrapped up. Amidst much talk of projecting and deflecting images, Butler dismisses the concept of eternal paradise for a soul without its soulmate: “If this is heaven, I don’t know what it’s for/ If I can’t find you there, I don’t care.” And then, on an Edward Sharpe-y note: “If this is heaven, I need something more/ Just a place to be alone, ’cause you’re my home.”

The ideas themselves are reflections, ever so slightly tweaked. The conception of eternity as a passionless void, a “darkness of white,” traces back across the pop timeline to 1979, when David Byrne worried that “heaven is a place where nothing ever happens” on Talking Heads’ Fear Of Music. The difference is, this time out, the so-called utopia is the internet, slowly swallowing up points of human contact until we’re all walled off in our own digital prison. There are plenty of dystopian fantasies that match that narrative better than that Talking Heads song, but Talking Heads is a clear connector here because the group’s influence looms so heavily in this music. Check out that world beat foundation, that percussive-yet-melancholic keyboard figure, those staccato high-range guitar parts dicing across the ether, that smile-inducing moment when the horn section toots its way into the spotlight (the song’s surest “whoa” moment). In mood and message, “Reflektor” could have easily been an outtake from Stop Making Sense (which, incidentally, also inspired Nine Inch Nails’ current live show). Montreal paper The Main was not wrong when it described the song’s first live rendition like so: “Imagine the Talking Heads’ ’Once In A Lifetime,’ but if David Bowie had written it while on vacation.”

Bowie’s in there too, and it’s not just his influence. The Thin White Duke (who, incidentally, also collaborated with Trent Reznor once) lends his voice to the all-consuming swell. Producer James Murphy seems to have contributed his low-register “Get Innocuous”/”Sound of Silver” voice to the mix, too, the one he borrowed from Bowie and Byrne in the first place, in the form of that sinking “down down down down down.” Throw in the kind of deep house piano track Murphy sometimes tapped for LCD Soundsystem tracks and they’ve got themselves one impressive ouroboros — or, you know, a reflection of a reflection of a reflection.

“Reflektor” is unmistakably a pastiche, but it’s also unmistakably an Arcade Fire song. If Butler’s bellowing about bigger-than-life topics or Chassagne carrying on in French about century-old French socialist newspapers didn’t tip you off, you’d know it by the time that gargantuan chorus kicks in, and certainly by the time they descend into one of those limitless euphoric codas they’ve been churning out since Funeral. The reference points from the band’s own history are disparate; “Reflektor” simultaneously conjures the airy drift of “Haiti” and “Sprawl II” and the thunderstruck HGH dance-punk of “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)”. But the song’s self-referential elements are less a reflection than a refraction, sending the group’s signature sound beaming out in new directions.

The art-disco approach is by no means a risky detour for a band that has always danced wildly at its concerts, especially given all its nods to the canon, especially at a time when pop music’s beating heart sounds a lot like an electronic pulse. And critiquing technology’s dehumanizing effects is not exactly a trailblazing concept. All the way back in 1997, Radiohead fleeced its beleaguered stadium anthems with computerized blips to bemoan the horrors of modern technology, and they weren’t the first. But Arcade Fire didn’t capture so many people’s imagination by staying on the cutting edge; they did it by cutting straight to people’s hearts. Arcade Fire has always been gourmet comfort food for the indie audience, anyhow — less about exploring new frontiers of music than reaffirming that arena rock can be artful, emotive and transcendent all at once, that music like this hasn’t died out entirely.

That said, it was time for a makeover. Arcade Fire doesn’t need to start over, but they can’t afford to stand still, and “Reflektor” injects just enough old tricks/new life into the band’s formula to suggest the rest of this new record (two discs’ worth of it) will be as revelatory as we’ve come to expect from this crew. It’s not The Suburbs redux, but it is in the same neighborhood, which is a good place to be.

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Comments (47)
  1. This song is outstanding. A 7+ minute “single” from Arcade Fire is exactly what I was hoping we’d get. The groove is fantastic, the late 70′s/early 80′s Talking Head-Bowie vibe it gives off is stellar and I bet this will even sound better surrounded by the other tracks within the new album. I’m officially excited.

  2. More excited to hear the song within the context of the album than anything else (which is such a lame comment but the truth, nonetheless). I’ve always sort of ignored Arcade Fire lyrics. “Ignored” is probably the wrong word, but their songs are about the big picture. They are willing to fudge the content to benefit the song and I like that. In a way, it keeps them from seeming too serious, especially in their later work.

    • Not a lame comment at all! I was talking about the same feeling in the Volcano Choir AOTW article.

      (since we’re making NIN references) I was talking about how hearing “Came Back Haunted” in the context of the new album makes it better, just as hearing “Closer” immediately after “March of the Pigs” makes it better in my mind.

      I contemplated where they would put “Reflektor” as it could very well be the lead-off track. Now that we know it’s a double album, clearly the two discs are meant to be mirrors, so we could be seeing some reprises a la The Suburbs beginning and ending their previous album. (Or similar to M83. Remember that bonus track “Mirror” that went in between both discs?)

      But at the same time, given its hefty length, it could be a deeper cut. What we can for sure bet on is that it will be surrounded by A LOT of other songs, quite possibly just as long.

      It’s why I prefer the album experience over singles listening. I feel where an artist puts a song amongst their other songs is a statement in and of itself. Going back to NIN, putting “Came Back Haunted” after “Copy of A” puts me in a more excited place when that song hits. Then its strength is enhanced by going into “Find My Way” immediately after, sort of like a comedown track, acknowledging the weight of the previous two songs. (or since Radiohead was mentioned: “Paranoid Android” into “Subterranean Homesick Alien”)

      Sequencing is one of my favorite parts about listening to albums. Why did they put what where? It’s the same thought process that goes into making a playlist or mixtape, something I’ve been doing for years.

      Anybody else have favorite album sequencing moments?

      • I’m sure there are many (possibly better) examples I’m completely forgetting about but, for some reason, the first that popped in my head was the decision to put Just before My Iron Lung on The Bends. It’s an album I still remember hearing for the first time and there’s something about the mood of Just and the start of My Iron Lung that just sets up the breakdown on the latter song so well. You never see it coming but it fits all the same.

      • There was a great AVQ&A awhile back over on The AV Club about the best one-two open album sequences, but the comments eventually just turned it into “best album sequencing.” A lot of great ones are noted: http://www.avclub.com/articles/best-albumopening-onetwo-punches,92188/

        For my money, the Side-A on REMAIN IN LIGHT is sequencing perfection. Those first two tracks just coming running at you before it all explodes into “The Great Curve,” and the Talking Heads take their polyrhythms to the breaking point, and everything collides into a totally unique sound, and it all just builds and builds on top of one another to the point of dizziness.

        Man, that album is so good.

      • Cocaine Lights into Pride from Phosphorescent’s ‘Pride.’

        From an album standpoint, I think one of the strongest suits on KV’s ‘Wakin on a Pretty Daze’ is how well-balanced the album is when played though, and how after the first 10 minutes of mellow awesomeness, Wakin goes right into the crunchy jaunt of KV Crimes. Same thing with Fleet Foxes ‘Helplessness Blues,’ which makes me like it even more than S/T or Sun Giant. Each side of Helplessness Blues consists of a nice, tight, three-song arch which also makes perfect sense looking at the album as a whole.

        • Also, the first side of Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Bookends’ is, in my opinion, one of the greatest, most cohesive 7-song stretches ever recorded in pop music. I sometimes wonder how it would be regarded if they had omitted, or released separately, Side-B of the album.

      • Garbage – Version 2.0: A Hammering in My Head –> Push It. There’s a pause between Shirley’s purring voice saying “on the bullet train from tokyo, to los angeleese” and the soft crush of ‘Push It’s” opening bar that might the most perfect half-second of silence ever.

      • The opening one-two punches of Hail to the Thief (2+2=5, Sit Down. Stand Up), The Suburbs (The Suburbs, Ready to Start) (and also the numbered Half Light/Sprawl tracks on the The Suburbs), Paracosm (Entrance, It Feels All Right), and the whole OK Computer/In Rainbows double album legend.

      • One album sequencing moment that comes to mind immediately is on this year’s Daft Punk record. That transition from “Touch” to “Get Lucky” is just so… perfect. That last sad piano chord fades to black but just as it gets darkest, the piano lifts you back up again. It’s really magical. I love it.

  3. The lyrical heavy-handedness tires, but as far as music and production go it’s a solid disco jam. I do like that tonally they seem to be stepping outside of the familiar, going for a more cool/ sinister vibe than their typical angst and catharsis.

  4. Epic song is epic is epic.

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  6. The whole double album thing has me filled with trepidation. I can count on one hand the number of amazing double albums and anything short of amazing for Reflektor will be a disappointment to me. The Suburbs itself was a great album but it certainly could have afforded some trimming.

    • Second this so much. Very rarely (Beatles, Dylan, Stones, Prince) do artists truly have enough fantastic material for a double album, and even then there are questions about brevity. The Suburbs could have been a much tighter album if it had cut out a few meandering and superfluous tracks about 3/4 of the way through.

      • When I go back and listen to The Suburbs, I skip a good 4-5 tracks every time, but Sprawl II works so exceptionally well because of the doldrums of the songs before it. The album is supposed to be meandering and superfluous at times because, well, that’s kind of the point, no?

        • I dunno, I skip “Sprawl I” everytime and “Sprawl II”is still pretty breathtaking.
          … and I think there’s better ways to express the meandering, superfluous qualities of the suburbs other than bad songs. I think the Suburbs would have made a great 10-song album. As it is, I still like it, but it’s my least favorite Arcade Fire record, if I had to chose.

    • agreed. They could have cut probably six songs from The Suburbs.

  7. I think it’s a great track, but I think if the rest of the songs (especially on a double album) are this long, the album will start to grate. Still love that they’re exploring big themes and making artful statements. Doesn’t hurt that you can dance to it either. Personally I’ve always been more comfortable with disco than current wave of popular EDM, but that could just be me.

  8. Thank you based James Murphy.

  9. I’m still excited for the album despite my hesitation in enjoying Reflektor. The album tracks are by far my favorite parts of Arcade Fire albums, see examples: “Haiti”, “Crown of Love”, “Neon Bible”, “Empty Room”, and “Suburban War”, which could possibly be my favorite AF song ever written.

  10. There’s another great self-referential moment in the song that I missed the first couple times I heard it. The opening part is a garbled sample of the opening piano notes from “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels).”

  11. I dunno, I think the Arcade Fire has started to become way too topical and zeigeist-y. Neon Bible to a smaller extent, then The Suburbs, and now Reflektor…sometimes I wish they’d just do an album that wasn’t so thematically structured, and didn’t try to encapsulate so ardently whatever Win finds “modern experience” to be. It all gets a little strained after awhile, and feels less like someone is relating their experience to me, which just so happens to be “modern”, but that they are instead desperately straining to condense everything that is “modern” into a polemic. It’s like slogging through a dense essay instead of just reading a good story – the latter of which is what Funeral felt like.

  12. Longer songs have really dominated this year. Between this, “Dream House,” and “Wakin On a Pretty Day” you have three of the best tracks of 2013 (obviously just my opinion) and almost a half hour’s worth of music.

  13. really like it, but too long :(
    i wish they really arrange the order of the songs in a good way this time…the suburbs was too long of an album and…i woul’ve liked The Suburbs (continued) to be the opening track, followed by Ready to start and The suburbs would’ve been a great ending track.

  14. I hate the argument that a song is bad just because it’s “too long”. What makes a song too long (other than the obvious)? Why does a song need to be between 3-5 minutes to be “good”? Sometimes it takes a while for a flower to bloom or a plane to take off. If you let a song take the time it needs, the result is ultimately satisfying.

    I look at a song like ‘Supper’s Ready” by Genesis. It’s roughly 24 minutes long, and it’s quite a journey. When that song reaches it’s climax and neatly bookends it’s final chorus, the moment is truly magical; the journey to get there was half the fun (like a road trip) and the destination is totally worth it!

    • Untitled #8
      Sister Ray
      everything Godspeed
      most everything Pink Floyd

      I’d devote an hour of my time to Dopesmoker rather than listen to most tidy little 3 minuters.

      When a band has a lot to say, they should go for it, let the radio do the editing. I’m happy with the length of the song…and I’m sure I’ll hear an amended cut in a car commercial in just a few weeks.

  15. “euphoric codas they’ve been churning out since Funeral”

    Sorry, this made me grumpy. Headlights Look Like Diamonds???

  16. Around 4:45 the pretty good song becomes a GREAT song

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