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.