In Brief: Arcade Fire’s glitzy, glammy makeover is reminiscent of U2 in the 90s in several ways, most of them good. While some will miss the “old-timey” instruments and other aspects of the old Arcade Fire sound, I think this bizarre, genre-hopping double disc might be their most consistent album yet.
I really wish that Arcade Fire‘s fourth album, Reflektor, had already been released when my wife and I made our way up to the city of Montreal back in mid-September. I make it a rule when I’m driving to a place I’ve never been before that if I have any music on my iPod made by people from that city, we should listen to it there. Of course I had The Suburbs handy for that purpose, which is always a good pick for a long drive. But that may be the most “American” of their albums thus far – in it, you hear musings about Win Butler‘s childhood hometown of Houston, Texas, and the bilingual “Frenglish” bits that stood out on past albums are entirely absent. Reflektor, on the other hand, might just be the Montreal-est of all their albums. I’m making an educated guess there – I can’t pretend to be an expert on a city after spending a mere two days there. But in that short time, I kind of fell in love with the place, and found myself fascinated not only by the tense relationship between French and English speakers that has played out over much of its history, but with the diverse array of people from other far-flung parts of the globe who called it home. It’s kind of stupid of me, but being from L.A., I tend to think that big cities outside of America aren’t as “global” as we are. I was dead wrong, and happy to be proven so. Similarly, whatever I thought I knew about Arcade Fire before Reflektor – their penchant for using quaint, old-timey instruments, their idiosyncratic, preacher-with-a-screw-loose vocal tendencies, etc. – has been largely obliterated and proven to be an outdated stereotype as I listen to this one.
I probably should have seen it coming. Win’s other half, Régine Chassagne, is from Haiti, after all, and while she’s sung about the country before on Funeral, this album marks the band’s first attempt to stir a bit of Haitian flair into their own weird little musical stew. Classic rock influences from decades gone by also play a role, as they did in that nostalgic headtrip through The Suburbs, but there are also odd references to classical literature (specifically the fable of Orpheus and Eurydice), and a whole lot of glammed-up beats and synthesizers. LCD Soundsystem mastermind James Murphy was on board to produce this one, and in many ways, the album seems poised to challenge our notion of what a “band” means in the digital age, and whether the simpler sounds of decades past can somehow live in harmony with the army of machines making a lot of the music that we sometimes despise and sometimes find ourselves bobbing our heads to in spite of supposedly knowing better today. At times I’m tempted to compare the change in sound to U2 in the 90s, though from what I can tell, the experiment is going over a lot better with fans than most of that era of U2 did.
Reflektor is also, to paraphrase Win’s explanation, a colossal failure at being a lean-and-mean rock album. I say that because that was the group’s intent starting out – to not over think it and to just churn out some short but sweet rockers, but somewhere along the way, they realized they were failing at this and creating these long, drawn-out songs anyway, to the point where they figured they might as well make this a double album. It’s sort of funny, because I often criticize bands for what I feel is a lack of content when an album only runs thirty minutes or so, as if this had somehow happened accidentally or the band just ran out of interesting material. Often that’s done on purpose, and similarly, long albums don’t generally happen by accident or because nobody was brave enough to suggest a little editing. The two halves are part of a thematic whole – one disc running like a non-stop dance party/rock show, and the other picking up the empty glasses and discarded party favors after the crowd is long gone, wondering about the meaning of it all as it wanders the city streets when the after-after-parties have died down. At times, the vocals and the guitar parts and other elements that might have jumped out at you on Arcade Fire’s earliest albums can seem a bit buried underneath all of the layers, but I actually find it endearing that “layered” doesn’t have to mean “pristinely arranged” and ultimately soulless. Several tracks that seem even-keeled at the outset can sneak up on you with a rawer sort of power by the end, and especially on the first disc, some of the more raggedy moments come right the heck out of nowhere. While I find the second disc to be a little more disjointed, musically speaking, that’s where Win gets a little less manic and a lot of the real introspection happens. There are a few tracks that might not quite live up to their potential, but altogether, this album keeps me interested throughout and it’s probably Arcade Fire’s most solid set thus far.
The title track, in all of its 7 1/2-minute glory, was a heck of a teaser to release almost two full months before the album dropped. I must have watched the bizarre music video three or four times in those first few days, musing over how the song felt simultaneously like a sequel to “Sprawl II” with its disco-throwback beat, and like the death of everything that song stood for, as the band mirrored the movements of the creepy, bobblehead face-masks they had worn in the previous song’s video, eventually burying them in the ground as if to leave The Suburbs behind for good. This song pulls a lot of great tricks, enough to keep it from stagnating over its mammoth length – Régine throws in a few lyrics in French and her vocals serve as an “echo” to her husband’s during the chorus (or is that the other way around?), the song goes into intense overdrive about midway through, turning a peppy dance party into something a lot more sinister, and horns and keyboards provide their fare share of vamps, ensuring that the song is always growing and changing. Even at their danciest, Win’s lyrics are heavy on introspection, wondering what good heaven and the afterlife are for if a man and his lover are separated there, and looking back on the foundations of his very belief, wondering if perceived answers to prayer were really just his own words bouncing off the walls and ceilings, “a reflection of a reflection of a reflection” causing him to hear what he wanted to hear. It’s a song so engrossing that I can see why David Bowie threatened to steal it from them. They compromised by letting him make a cameo appearance on the track. I think that worked out well for all involved.
2. We Exist
While the entire album isn’t necessary a throwback to glammed-up synthesized sounds, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was a permanent new direction for the band, judging from the big booming bass line that opens this deceptively laid-back song, and the groovy “Na-na-na-na” vocal hook that gives it the pretense of a sunny, chilled-out vibe. What seems mid-tempo and innocuous ramps up quite a bit over five minutes or so, the synths growing more shrill and persistent as the drums change up the mood from “toe-tapping pleasantry” to “menacing death march”. And the chorus of the song deliberately causes the rhythm to trip over itself, a bit more convincingly than they did in “Modern Man” on the last album, as if to insist that you don’t get too comfortable with predictable patterns. The message of this song is anything but chilled-out, as a group of misfits questions why they get ignored, or worse, harassed by the rest of “normal” society, as if their very existence could be somehow erased by either fervent prayer or ugly brute force. Reading between the lines, it’s pretty obvious that this is a gay rights anthem, though it’s less of a didactic “We want change now!” kind of protest and more of a plea for sympathy, as if to say you can’t really criticize someone else’s way of life until you’ve walked in their shoes, seen how they get treated, and realized that if this were a choice, no sane person would choose it. It’s good to see a band fronted by a hetero married couple showing that kind of support for people who have been marginalized and misunderstood. It’s clearly something that gets Win worked up, because I don’t think I’ve ever heard him swear in a song before, but here he blurts out a rebuttal to those who would write off same-sex attraction as just a poor choice made by someone who ought to know better but is apparently just confused: “We know that we’re young/And no sh!t we’re confused/But will you watch us drown?/What are you so afraid to lose?”
3. Flashbulb Eyes
This one’s a bit of an oddity, in that it’s one of the few short tracks on the album, and it feels more like a dub of a song whose overall lyrics and structure got misplaced in the act of remixing it. It’s a fun little pre-party, very heavy on the reverb, bringing in Caribbean-sounding keyboards and puzzling over the superstitious notion held by some folks in that part of the world: “What if the cameras really do take your soul?” It’s interesting to hear the band shoving the rhythm section up to the front, which may frustrate some people because there’s some pretty cool distorted guitar riffing going on here, but it’s sort of buried in the mix along with Win’s vocals. To me, this one’s really more of a lead-in to the epic-length song that follows, rather than a standalone song unto itself – the background chatter and overall “party atmosphere” bringing the gap between the two helps to support my theory.
4. Here Comes the Night Time
Here’s where the party really gets started. Drummer Jeremy Gara and bassist Tim Kingsbury‘s importance on this album really can’t be understated, especially here, when the light speed, rat-a-tat rhythm comes totally out of left field, accompanied by a frantic electric guitar shooting up into the stratosphere. It’s as if you stepped off the beach for a minute, and into a casino, and all of the deafening noise and flashing lights competing for your attention were so overwhelming that you hastily turned around and walked back out again. The total about-face that this song does as it suddenly slows the rhythm down to “Caribbean slow jam” is the kind of thing that would normally frustrate me, because I normally hate it when a song establishes an exciting tempo and then backs off from it so suddenly. But here, it works. You get the sense that the band is tripping over itself trying to adjust to an unexpected change made on a whim by its leader, which contributes to the overall feeling of spontaneity felt throughout much of the first disc. And the slower rhythm – which takes up most of the song – is just as delightful, filled out with playful keyboards (including a piano that seem like it’s drunkenly trying to start a solo and then changing its mind) and a buzzing bass line that will rattle your car windows if you like to turn the volume up as loud as I do. More than just an excuse to relax and soak up the after-hours tropical atmosphere, this song seems to be about a community coming together to celebrate and share what little they have. We first-worlders can’t really understand the concept of having little or no electricity, at least not for more than a few days at a time when really gnarly weather hits, so this idea of strength in numbers when a township goes completely dark after sunset and it’s not safe to wander the streets alone might be a bit foreign to us. Questions about the afterlife are once again pondered here, with heaven looking like a place of privilege that the common people are locked out of, while hell is a daily reality that these folks have to make the most of – and ultimately they seem to find more joy despite their setbacks than a lot of us “rich folk” do. “If there’s no music in heaven, then what’s it for?”, Win wonders, bringing to mind similar questions he asked in the title track. And as if to demonstrate how much it would suck to not have that music around, the crazy fast rhythm that I loved so much at the beginning of the song comes back for an encore, and this time stays for a while, bringing Arcade Fire to the most frenzied climax they’ve ever reached, before backing off once again for the mellow outro.
5. Normal Person
While maintaining the whole “ramshackle live show” feel, the mood here shifts from “tropical dance party” to “seedy underground rock club”, complete with sounds of the band plugging in and tuning up their gear, and Win apologizing for microphone feedback and thanking the audience for coming out. “Do you like rock and roll music?” he croons in a cartoonish voice as the song starts up. “‘Cause I don’t know if I do.” This would definitely be the most “rock and roll” of the songs on this album, possibly in the band’s entire catalog, if you take that term to mean an edgy, upstart attitude and the raw, ragged energy of extremely loud guitars. The way that they absolutely squeal during the chorus is delightful – I know this is still a studio creation, but I can imagine the song sounding pretty much exactly as rough around the edges when played live. Win broods about what it’s like to meet a normal person as the rhythm of this song bumps and stabs along before reaching its thrashing chorus. The very idea of “normal” seems oppressive, as if anyone who self-identifies with that terms gets to look down on others who don’t conform. And it’s sort of interesting that the song plays with the notion that maybe a true “normal person” is an imaginary construct, as if to turn on its head the notion from “We Exist” that the weird people are the ones who can be willed out of existence. Apparently there was an angry “normal” person running the soundboard, because just as the song is wrapping up, the plug gets pulled entirely on the band, and the whole thing is abruptly cut off.
6. You Already Know
At this point it seems like Arcade Fire is just meandering through rock music’s history in whatever order they see fit. Which is fun, don’t get me wrong. But it’s a bit random when their abrasive little concert suddenly shifts gears into this peppy, upbeat number that sounds like they took a lost relic from the 50s or 60s and just added some stabs of distorted guitar to its chorus to balance out the cheeriness a bit. It’s like someone took the title track from The Suburbs and sped it up a bit, made it a lot bouncier, even though its lyrics are bogged down with guilt and worry, telling someone who is down in the dumps and losing sleep over it, “Please stop wondering why feel so bad/When you already know.” The dissonance here is intentional, I’m sure, though there’s not really enough detail to it for me to hazard a guess at why they chose to make such a mood clash with a beat that sounds as giddy as the first time Buddy Holly and his band realized there was such a thing as syncopation. The radio announcer voice introducing the band by name at the beginning and end of the song only adds to the “musical time travel” feel of the song.
7. Joan of Arc
This one starts off with another rush of fierce, unexpected energy, in the form of a punked-out protest song. Win’s got the kind of voice where he can bark out lyrics rather convincingly in this style, so it works even if it’s a far cry from the lush, carefully unfolding arrangements we’re used to from these guys. But then, not even a minute into the song, it completely shifts gears, going back to the poppy side of rock music with more addictive syncopation – this time the flavor of it is more 80s than 60s, as if the martyred muse Win is singing about could have been a curly blond-haired music video icon with pink earrings instead of a French revolutionary. (When Régine chimes in, “Jeanne d’Arc, aah-ooh!”, it just might be one of the catchiest things ever.) I like both of the musical moods in this song, even as jarring as the transition between the two may be – it’s notable that they managed to make the same verse melody work both ways. And I like how the band uses this to explore the love/hate relationship between a woman and the men who seem to constantly rethink their judgment of her – one minute she’s an inspiration, a goddess to be worshiped, and the next she’s a heretical traitor to be spit on and burned at the stake. The thing that makes this song feel incomplete, though, is how that “80’s beat” just sort of drags on through its last few minutes – having already reached its climax early on, it seems like the band is just marking time until finally the drums pound a little louder and the whole thing comes to a dead stop, ending the first disc. I feel like a much more powerful way to end it would have been to go back to that punk version of the song and let it escalate from there until the whole thing fell apart in a fit of seething madness. But maybe that’s just me.
Depending on what format you have this album in, you may hear upwards of ten minutes of experimental noise in the break between the first and second halves of the album. Most of this is just backmasked elements from the songs on the first disc, and on the CD version, this all actually shows up in the pregap before track 1. It’s the kind of thing I’d only ever listen to once, to be honest. And I don’t really mind that sort of artsy-fartsy indulgence when it stays out of the way of the album proper. But putting it in the pregap does introduce a technical issue for CD-ROM drives, which can’t play back the pregap info at all. That’s fine – I don’t really miss it – but I actually have a drive that can’t play the first disc at all due to the start of track one being buried so far into the data stream that it just spins and spins forever and gives up. Be forewarned if you’re planning on buying this album on CD.
8. Here Comes the Night Time II
The album’s only real hiccup comes at the beginning of the second disc, with this slow dirge that isn’t really a full song in its own right, but isn’t an intriguing enough interlude to warrant being almost three minutes long. It’s a sequel to “Here Comes the Night Time” in name only, sharing no rhythmic or melodic similarities, nor anything in its lyrical structure beyond repeating the title in its refrain. Thematically, I guess it clears the stage for the second act, which is way less of a party and more of a look within. But that doesn’t make Win’s rather simplistic rhymes terribly interesting: “I hurt myself again/How low we go, my friends/Feels like it never ends/Here comes the night again.” Also, ending abruptly when the next track does a slow fade-in is kind of a poor way to set up a track like this as an intro.
9. Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)
I’d have been find just starting disc two with this odd little song – it’s the first half of a two-part suite, though the two songs aren’t musically related to each other in any way that I’ve picked up on. This one sounds like it’s bumping around in the dead of night at first – it’s still quite rhythmic, but scaled back to more of a minimalist approach at first, as if the band were backstage just fiddling around with a slinky drum and bass groove and someone hit “record”. Things get much more layered and refined later on, as wispy synths and the steady strum of an acoustic guitar come in, their gentle, airy sounds competing with the snap-crackle of programmed drums. the end result is a bit disorienting, as if the song were gradually getting seasick, and the title “Awful Sound” definitely comes into play at a few points when a string section that’s been mostly hanging out into the background suddenly swells up into an unholy racket, until finally the whole thing ceases and the band breaks into a chorus with a much looser, more easygoing rhythm. The effect is much like The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life”, except here it’s the verses and chorus that feel like they come from two completely different songs, rather than the parts before and after the chaotic strings. The first part of the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice (seen in the sculpture on the album’s cover) is alluded to here, with Win playing the role of Orpheus, one of the world’s oldest examples of a tortured musician, grieving the sudden loss of his wife Eurydice, and remembering the sound when she fell dead to the Earth as the most awful thing he had ever heard. Guess that explains those tormented strings. There are references to the couple meeting in “a reflective age”, which is a nice callback to the title track, which actually makes me wonder if I need to rethink my understanding of that song in light of this tragic fable.
10. It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus)
The second half of the suite, sung (and shouted!) mostly by Régine from Eurydice’s point of view, depicts Orpheus’s journey to Hades to bedazzle the gods with music and win his deceased wife back. The deal struck between them is that she can follow him out of Hades if he doesn’t turn around and look back at her on the way out. In Arcade Fire’s interpretation, she’s either desperately calling out to him or just plain nagging him not to look back. Put together the playful shouts, another one of the album’s liveliest rhythms, and some extremely badass guitar and bass riffs, and you get a way more irresistible groove than I thought these guys could ever come up with, as well as one of the best examples of synergy between two dynamic lead vocalists. Say what you want about their lyrics sometimes being depressing or Win’s delivery being rather morose, and Régine coming across sounding almost childish by comparison. But these folks sing and play their hearts out here, as if leading their own souls out of hell depended on it. Tragically, we know from the story that Orpheus is eventually going to give in to temptation, look back, and lose his wife. The song pulls off a really deft balance between its slick groove and its softer moments, which come across almost as gentle pleas for their harrowing journey to finally be over, and in a strange way, the song justifies its near seven-minute length by continuing the ordeal just when you think it might finally be done. It’s the longest of a set of four songs in a row that all hover around the six-minute mark, so it’s a huge credit to the band that they can get away with this and put enough excitement and diversity into each song to keep the the entire back half of the album from becoming an incredibly tedious listen.
Calling a track “Porno” is one of those things where, even though I really wasn’t sure I wanted to hear a song on such a topic when I first listened to the album, I sort of have to admire the audacity. (Of course there will be endless jokes – I’ve already annoyed people by pointing out that I’m surprised neither Barenaked Ladies nor The New Pornographers have recorded such a song. And when a friend with the vinyl edition mentioned that he had to flip the second disc over for “Porno”, I commented that I didn’t realize vinyl was capable of storing multimedia.) Fittingly, the track has a seductive and mostly synthesized groove – it’s not quite “porno bass”, but it definitely brings the setting to a seedy lounge where you know some sort of pimpin’ must be going on. (The U2 comparison comes to mind again here, not because this sounds in any way like them, but because on Pop, the un-U2-est album of them all, there’s a little-known track called “The Playboy Mansion” that has a similar vibe.) Interestingly, the song doesn’t play up the seediness beyond that – Win’s got more serious issues of faithfulness and respectful treatment of women on his mind, so against the odds, the song actually comes across a promise of commitment. Despite the moody minor-key tune and all the bow-chicka-wow that’s being implied, he sort of writes that stuff as being for immature little boys, whose heads are easily turned by a woman with too much makeup and baring too much skin, but who are led by these things to have extremely selfish expectations of love and sex. Real men appreciate their women for what’s more than skin deep. Real men stick around when women show actual emotions. In a way, they’re commenting on popular culture here, as if being over all of that “sex sells” stuff makes them freaks who will never fit in. But I like that these things are implied in the lyrics without it being a diatribe. It’s just one man promising one woman, that even though he can understand the temptation, he won’t let himself stoop to that level because she deserves better.
The second-to-last track on an Arcade Fire album has a huge burden to bear at this point – there’s a legacy of awesome eleventh-hour crowd-pleasers in that slot on their past albums (see “Rebellion (Lies)”, “No Cars Go”, and the aforementioned “Sprawl II”), so they sort of have a responsibility to knock it out of the park here. And they certainly give it a valiant effort, with another up-tempo, rhythm-heavy anthem, which isn’t as frantic as the highlights of the first disc, but it’s still quite catchy and it does bring back a little bit of the “tropical party” flair from earlier. It’s the only remotely radio-friendly thing on the second disc, and in an interesting twist, it questions our notions of the afterlife, as Win muses “Oh my God, what an awful word.” It certainly puts a damper on the high spirits that we’d get from a song like “No Cars Go”, which seemed to look forward to heaven with sheer exuberance. I tend to see this one not as questioning the existence of heaven or the desire to go there, but rather the notion that we should just view this life as a waiting room for heaven and not do anything worthwhile during life because we’re so preoccupied with the afterlife. There are times when I think this song doesn’t grow to be as big and beautiful as it ought to – something in the vocal delivery is a bit too subdued to really give it the melodic punch it needs. But it would still be a fun main set-ender or first encore tune in concert – I’d have a blast dancing badly to its infectious rhythm. (Dang; I just checked their website and the Reflektor tour is coming nowhere near L.A. Major bummer.)
The funny thing about the actual finales of Arcade Fire albums is that they tend to be anti-climactic. Not always in a bad way. I slowly grew to appreciate “My Body Is a Cage”, and “In the Backseat” is one of my all-time favorites. This one’s a bit different, in that it departs almost completely from the land of human sounds (other than the vocals), using synths to fill pretty much every instrumental role. Here, a windower bids his wife a final farewell, noting that she lives on in his mind, but that it’s not the same thing – whenever he imagines her voice, he knows it’s really just his own voice echoed back to him. What “symmetry” has to do with this, I’m not sure, but I guess the entire album is about mirrors and echoes, about trying to establish contact with a world outside your own but finding that you’re just projecting your own preconceived notions onto it. This song is a restrained way to end the album, pretty in its own right, but not as epic as the 11-minute runtime would lead you to expect. (The last half is just the faint echoing of electronic sounds, presumably repurposed from elsewhere on the album to mirror the first disc’s pregap track, but once again, it’s not really worth listening to more than once.)
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
We Exist $1.75
Flashbulb Eyes $.75
Here Comes the Night Time $1.75
Normal Person $1.75
You Already Know $1.25
Joan of Arc $1
Here Comes the Night Time II -$.25
Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice) $1.25
It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus) $2
Win Butler: Lead vocals, guitar, bass, mandolin, keyboards
Régine Chassagne: Backing vocals, accordion, drums, piano, xylophone, hurdy gurdy, recorders, keyboards
Richard Reed Parry: Guitar, electric and upright bass, celesta, keyboards, piano, organ, synths, accordion, drums, percussion, backing vocals
William Butler: Synthesizer, bass guitar, guitar, percussion, sitar, panpipes, trombone, omnichord, glockenspiel, musical saw, upright bass, concertina, clarinet, gadulka
Tim Kingsbury: Guitar, bass guitar, double bass, keyboards
Jeremy Gara: Drums, guitar, keyboards
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: