Album Review: Arcade Fire, “Reflektor”

When the title track of Arcade Fire’s fourth studio album, “Reflektor,” leaked in early September, it sounded nothing like the straight-faced indie rock band we’ve come to know. While the heady songwriting remained, the music had changed: where snares once crashed, bongos flourished; severe pianos had given way to disco synths; and not a single note of hurdy-gurdy, but a precious few from David Bowie.

Reports from a one-off show a few days later further suggested the band had changed their tune. In their native Montreal, Arcade Fire debuted a set’s worth of new music at a salsa club. Billed as The Reflektors, a handle they’ve used for every show since, they required that the 100 or so lucky patrons all sport costumes or formal clothing, a far cry from the usual dress code of t-shirts and flannel. Reports from the inside confirmed the material wasn’t just dance-y by Arcade Fire standards, but bonafide get-down music, suited better to cutting loose than bemoaning the staid suburbs.

As it it turns out, the reports were half true. The first of “Reflektor”‘s two discs is a frenzied mix of discotheque pop, Haitian rara music and jagged punk, which if combined with two tracks from the disc two, could make for a sweaty (if short) club set. Taken separately, the two parts are markedly different, with disc two claiming a mini-narrative of its own along with the double-album’s most memorable moments despite its relative pallor. Together, they form a diverse and well-rounded whole that keep you and your head humming well after the album’s immersive one hour and fifteen minutes is up.

Like most floor-ready LPs, the first disc of “Reflektor” is essentially a collection of singles, with little stylistic connective tissue aside from its vocalists. There’s no overriding genre, but rather a healthy sampling from all over. “We Exist” radiates dark synthetic pop, while the forgettable “Flashbulb Eyes” pairs its photographic paranoia with a shade of reggaeton. Along with “Reflektor,” “Here Comes The Night Time” is the big takeaway from disc one. Borrowing from Hatian rara music, the populist party song is the most uninhibited Arcade Fire have ever sounded. Stilted frontman Win Butler has always seemed the type who would hole up in a bedroom with a few friends at a dance party, but we’ve misjudged him, these songs seem to say. Though they’re too weighty in length and subject to hit any but the most alternative stations, these are radio hits by their own right.

But as its title suggests, even at its funkiest, “Reflektor” pushes thoughtful dance music. The new-wave “Normal Person” decries the ideal of society’s in-group, identifying the normal person as cruel if they even exist in the first place, and attempts to pin them with the sort of derogatory label all outliers have experienced: “When they get excited, they try to hide it / look at those normals go.” Through its campy, self-aware game-show rhythm—its spoken intro references the band’s infamous appearance on Friday Night with Jonathan Ross—”You Already Know” is a loose ditty aimed at people who let themselves get in the way of living their lives.

“Reflektor” is the disc’s biggest and most intriguing statement. Riffing on the alienating aspect of technology (as in “We Exist”) and deadened passion, the song says a lot in its seven-and-a-half minutes. Technology connects us in unprecedented ways, but has redefined connection in the process as something easily reproduced and faked while simultaneously lowering its standards. The once mighty CD, which imagined music as an infinitely sharable commodity, eventually decimated the industry that birthed it. Of course, these pieces of technology have only come to be subversively self-destructive because of what we’ve done with them—pop out your iPhone’s battery or take the player away from the CD and it’s only good for looking at yourself.

Sonically, disc two is several shades bluer than its oft-glimmering counterpart. From the crawling “Here Comes The Night Time II,” to the last six back-masked minutes of “Supersymmetry,” the rhythms are cool, sauntering and atmospheric. If you never listened to that pre-release leak of “Reflektor,” disc two is probably what you’d imagine as “Arcade Fire dance music.” “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)” bursts through its plunking reggae rhythm and ominous verses with a chorus as resounding and catchy as any the band has written. With its ruthless bass and “Dance Yrself Clean” rhythm, “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)” is the prime example of a perfect union between producer James Murphy and Arcade Fire. It scores the hardest-hitting moment on the album and has the band at their most formidable. “Porno,” “Afterlife” and “Supersymmetry” gradually de-escalate from here, paradoxically rising up from the heavy dark into an airy finish.

The songs on disc two loosely form a mini-narrative based on the story of Eurydice and her lover Orpheus, the only character in Greek mythology to have seen hell and returned. “Reflektor”‘s Orpheus and Eurydice have been appropriately updated to the modern age: Orpheus’ love for Eurydice is only requited after she’s left their small town and been ground down by the world outside of it. Hell is sexual exploitation in the insidious “Porno,” where the world belongs to “little boys with their porno.” “Afterlife” and “Supersymmetry” explore—no Cher intended—life after love, and where love settles after death.

Even though the two discs tie together thematically and lyrically at times, it’s hard to remember where it all started by the time you reach the album’s end. “Reflektor” is nothing short of a musical journey, taking its listeners to the land of head-banging thrash to the netherworld of lowdown dub with impressive cohesion. It’s also an album intent on getting its listeners to experience friends, love and music the old-fashioned way: in the flesh. With “Reflektor” as its flier, the next Arcade Fire—er, Reflektors—tour sounds designed to help you do just that.

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