Music Reviews

Arcade Fire Reflektor

(Merge) Rating - 7/10

Despite all the boastful diatribe that Kanye West regularly speaks, he makes a good point in describing how rap stars are the new rock n’ roll. The cultural dominance of rap music transcends any social signifiers, and no other genre can amass widespread popularity whilst retaining critical acceptance. Whereas rap music steadfastly rises, rock n’ roll continues to suffer an identity crisis that stems from a lack of trend recognition. It has become commonplace to question its relevance in our times, which teeters wildly between flatlined post-grunge and modestly forced indie rock posturing. But none of these will ultimately define how we remember these times - there’s a sheer lack of iconography, and what little we remember will essentially exist as a forgettable footnote below glowing snapshots of Beyoncé and Adele in a textbook of contemporary popular music. So where does that leave an act like Arcade Fire, practically the only ones carrying the torch that Chuck Berry lit up as it alarmingly fades into ashes.

One may detest the horribly misguided Grammy voting process, which has always favored popularity over any other ranking factors, but it really meant something when the Canadian stalwarts took home the Album of the Year award for The Suburbs in 2011. Perhaps more than any other artist in recent memory, simply because they longed to prove that there’s still a way to achieve U2-levels of grandeur without sacrificing artistic integrity. That win was more symbolic to the genre as a whole than foreshadowing the potentiality of them becoming a band for the ages. Household names they weren’t - Grammy viewers were just googling their name for the first time just as they closed the ceremony with Suburbs notable cut Ready to Start. But Arcade Fire seem unconcerned by the praise, and even in Reflektor track Joan of Arc they abstractedly insinuate it behind its more overt message about the French heroine: “Now they tell you that you’re their muse/Yeah, they’re so inspired." They certainly reject such a description, and even close the song by illustrating the fickle relationship between artist and audience (first they love you, then they kill you, then they love you again); receiving any obsequious flattery is triggered by an impression, and the reception will fizzle out until it’s time to prove yourself yet again.

So it’s settled that Arcade Fire doesn’t have a redeeming purpose in mind, but if we sum up Reflektor as a whole, they’re obviously savoring the idea of writing an overblown masterpiece. It’s too late in the game to approach subtlety, and being in a comfortable place both critically and commercially allows them to set out on a risk taking venture. The first order of business is to define themselves in a new light, which is precisely what they did when Reflektor was first revealed - the title track implies that Arcade Fire feel like dancing, and therefore, the production will intersect rara rhythms and drawn out instrumental passages without losing their inherent squareness as individuals. Nevertheless, it’s confident and exquisitely realized, proof that enlisting the services of another like-minded square like James Murphy would help them break away from the sheer immensity of their past work. Whereas a nervy catharsis would engulf their stories, now they’re sweating their troubles away. But it’s not without its missteps: Here Comes the Night Time is bursting with joy and release, a swooning celebration replete with incessant steel-drum pounds, measured conga hits and embellished horns in the style of samba. But all these elements together are too potent to carry the truncated productional at hand, which better suits its more atypical portions - the compressed bass and flat, echoed vocals of Win Butler deprive a song that is begging to break free.

For better or worse, the more propulsive, groove-oriented numbers in the first half of Reflektor are what holds Arcade Fire’s newfound vision, except that they’re cobbled together with disparate stylistic choices that don’t completely cohere. The band tries to answer their current stature as indie rock-aristocracy with Normal Person, arguably the worst song they’ve ever written, posing shamelessly tawdry guitar riffs and a slinky, unsexy stomp reminiscent of Riptide-era Robert Palmer that veers into the other major eighties influence in Reflektor besides new wave: soft rock. Which wouldn’t be an issue if done right, except Arcade Fire cynically mock themselves with an air of condescension and just plain bad taste. You Already Know is a blatant facsimile of Maneater, utilizing a squally low pitch over a one-two beat that partly redeems itself once its carefully layered synthesizers soar into a satisfying crescendo. But the aforementioned Joan of Arc is nothing more than smoke and mirrors, conveniently constructed around the infamous rally cry of Gary Glitter’s Rock n Roll with a tinge of scuzzy glam rock fuzz that ends up leaving a bitter aftertaste.

All these stylistic experiments feel a bit trying and forced, compounding a first half that lacks direction and decisiveness. Thankfully, it begins to gain traction with its more homogeneous second half even if the laundry list of influences continues to grow. Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice) takes a more ambient realm taken straight from Bowie’s Low-era period, which curiously converges into a comely chorus with a pastoral folk feel that’s just otherworldly in its beauty; imagine a lonely astronaut were dreaming about Laurel Canyon from the vastness of space. It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus) is a continuation of sorts from Awful Sound (as if a tragic love story depicting two Greek gods weren’t epic enough), a lush yet firmly textured dance track sporting a commanding guitar progression that gradually intensifies as its sequenced synths waft gently in the background. But the heavily publicized Afterlife is still a discernible highlight, which contemplates on the higher meaning of love with that beaming, decidedly anthemic bent they manage to perform so well.

Reflektor hits too many high points to entirely consider it a failure, and despite its convoluted lyrical content and overreaching scope it still crosses the double album finish line with satisfactory results. Perhaps what throws one for a loop in comparison to other Arcade Fire albums is how they diminish some emotional resonance in favor of sounding like a more interesting band, an attribute they’ve never possessed. It’s a dilemma that only big acts face once they’ve exhausted their natural sound, an itch to see beyond their racial boundaries and expand their horizons. The need to aim even higher is desired, if not necessary, a luxury after achieving what’s toughest of all: shattering the threshold of modest success. Rock n’ roll is still in a worrying state, and they’re just as unsure about whether or not it’s a viable course to take in the future. But if any one act is worth betting for its sustainability it's Arcade Fire, who will continue to reap its commercial advantages without shrugging off the classic sound that got them there.