Premature Evaluation: Arcade Fire Reflektor
Arcade Fire have spent the better part of a decade growing into their own majesty. Funeral, for all its estimable sweep, existed very much in the context of early-’00s indie, with all the scraggly yelping and old-timey pianos that were so in vogue in that Modest Mouse/Bright Eyes era. The ambition and enthusiasm were very much there, but so were these gnarled affectations that felt a bit secondhand. On Neon Bible, they tried out Springsteenian grandeur, and it mostly worked; that album has aged awfully well. Still, though, there was the hint of quotation marks around what they were doing. The Suburbs — for my money, still their best record — was where they figured out how to do scope and ambition entirely on their own terms, to adapt joyous synthpop flourishes and blown-out widescreen pomp without drawing from any obvious sources or withholding in anyway. And now that they’ve harnessed all that grandeur, they now face the problem of what to do with it. So: Reflektor, a forcefully and unapologetically transitional record, a grand and glorious mess, an attempt to reach out in a whole mess of different directions at once, an Event Album that doesn’t let its Event status overwhelm it tangled personal weirdness.
Relfektor has growing pains all over it, and some of the noise surrounding the album has been just painfully awkward: Their insistence on referring to themselves as the Reflektors (as if there’s no way Arcade Fire could be pushing themselves in all these different directions), the waxy-head costumes, the euphorically odd late-night TV special, the general clumsy silliness of the grand album rollout (especially compared with the clinical precision of Daft Punk’s grand album rollout). And some of that bleeds through to the album, as well. the hidden track and “Supersymmetry” are mostly made up of long, boring stretches of orchestral ambience and backwards noises. Between the album’s two obviously-demarcated halves, we get that same sound that used to come between sides on cassette tapes, an obvious self-conscious touch that takes you right out of it. And with most of the tracks padded out in the neighborhood of six minutes, the album has some of that 20/20 Experience syndrome: Songs that would’ve been just fine at four minutes, blown out to indulgent lengths because this somehow makes them seem more important.
But if some of these decisions are a bit awkward, they don’t detract from the album’s brilliant moments, and god knows there are plenty of those. Reflektor represents the band’s proud, obvious, self-conscious decision to attempt an Achtung Baby or a Remain In Light, to team up with a visionary producer and drop some of their self-serious image and push their sound in places where it’s never been before. Their Eno is James Murphy, who shares co-production credit with old collaborator Markus Dravs and with the band itself. In certain places, Murphy’s touch is obvious. The title track, for instance, is basically Arcade Fire doing their version of an LCD Soundsystem song, with the real David Bowie standing in for Murphy’s Bowie impression. And you can hear his fingerprints at work elsewhere: The push-pull congas, the shivery pianos, the perfectly-placed keyboard blips. But Murphy’s influence is more important in a couple of nebulous senses. For one thing, Murphy the producer is one of our great loudness nerds, an Albini disciple who’s figured out how to apply that cold in-room sound to other genres. And no matter how layered and complex the arrangements on Reflektor become, all the individual sounds remain hard and physical and immediate. Also, and perhaps more importantly, Murphy is a great proponent of trying, and possibly of falling on your ass. I interviewed Murphy once, and he gave me this great quote: “Fucking go try! Fail! Go face-down! Listen to the Paul McCartney records; he went face-down a lot, but you don’t get ‘Temporary Secretary’ if you’re not willing to go face-down. You don’t get Ram. You don’t get these songs that are above and beyond what that guy is.” And by that same token, you don’t get “Here Comes The Night Time” if you’re not willing to go face-down.
And holy shit, “Here Comes The Night Time”: A carnival-parade explosion that settles down into a sinuous Carribean ripple, a very slow and very white calypso. It’s ridiculous, and it’s gorgeous. Arcade Fire have been huge public advocates of aid to Haiti, but their decision to incorporate bits of Haitian music, leaves them very open to the sorts of cultural-appropriation charges that once dogged Vampire Weekend. But what a beautiful, revelatory song it is — a song about personal discovery that sounds like personal discovery, like human beings caught up in the endorphin-rush of learning what their hips can do. And sure, there’s some awkwardness there, as there always is when it takes grown-ups forever to learn this stuff. But that awkwardness doesn’t overwhelm the sheer happiness that the song conveys; if anything, it augments it. “The lights don’t work / Nothing works / You say you don’t mind,” sings a dazzled Win Butler, and the excited awe in his voice reminds me a bit of Michael Jackson when he first played around with club music, or like Rivers Cuomo bleating “How cool is that?” on “El Scorcho.”
There are other highs, too. That title track is glorious arena-rock disco, a complicated machine in which every part does its job to perfection. “Flashbulb Eyes” is such stiff, spacey, paranoid echo-chamber funk that it practically screams Remain In Light from the rooftops. “Afterlife” somehow integrates all those counter-rhythms into an old-school indie bray-fest; it’s the closest thing to an old-model Arcade Fire song here. Meanwhile, the only real rock song on the album is the tough, terse, extremely uncomfortable “Normal Person.” Butler opens the song thusly: “Do you like rock and roll music / Because I don’t know if I do” — shades of Guy Picciotto snarling that he hates the sound of guitars on Fugazi’s decidedly guitar-charged “Target.” He’s singing in a gasping whisper, like Mick Jagger on “Miss You,” over a barreling bar-rock honk that explodes, on the chorus, into some triumphant riffage that maybe, possibly mocks the very idea of triumphant riffage.
But there are also lows. I’m waiting for most of the album’s second half to grab me, and it hasn’t happened yet. Many of their songs resonate less as songs and more as grooves — murky, turgid, inward grooves at that. Around the time Régine Chassagne’s spirited franglais whoop briefly takes center-stage on “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus),” I found myself wishing that she’d be the focus of more of these songs, that Butler would take the backseat a bit more often, the way he did on The Suburbs. Indeed, Chassagne is a way better singer than her husband, and Win doesn’t quite have the vocal swagger that he needs to convincingly animate some of the funkier vamps here. Still, even at its lowest point, there’s a lot to admire here. This is a band who use honest-to-god avant-music stars — Owen Pallett, Colin Stetson — as sidemen, and even when things don’t quite click, I can’t help but admire the reach. Every track has its own grand ambition, and that ambition is at least a bit different from the grand ambition on every other track. So Reflektor is something like a big-budget movie in which every scene is a set-piece and you never get a chance to catch your breath between them. Maybe not all of those set-pieces make sense, and maybe it doesn’t quite hang together, but you still leave breathless. It’s the Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol of albums. And you know what? I fucking loved Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. That movie ruled.
Reflektor is out 10/29 on Merge.