Album Review: Arcade Fire—”Reflektor”

By Stuart Oakes

The double album is an ambitious statement. Usually coming mid-career, when a band has built up enough goodwill and confidence to try and pull it off, it’s a formula fraught with peril. However, when it does work, the added time allows for larger aspirations and nuances of expression. And that’s just with most bands – Montreal-bred Arcade Fire tends to dream a little bit bigger than their peers and it shows on their incredibly ambitious fourth studio album, the double-disc Reflektor. Unfortunately, Arcade Fire isn’t always able to back up its big ideas and it results in a record that seems just a little too underwhelming to strike at their previous highs.

Reflektor graffiti outside of Robarts.

Reflektor graffiti outside of Robarts, photo by Emily Scherzinger

Coming off a Grammy-win for previous album The Suburbs (arguably their best work to date) and having achieved a level of success rarely seen in alternative circles, Reflektor is an important next step for the band. Its extensive rollout, which included an SNL special broadcast, street art (including one in front of Robarts), and a stint as quasi-mystery band The Reflektors, showed Arcade Fire was operating on a looser, more laid-back level than in the past, and things got even more exciting with the release of the lead single “Reflektor”, a 7-minute disco-masterpiece produced by James Murphy (DFA Records, formerly of LCD Soundsystem).

The song is an incredible blend of Latin percussion, solid disco bounce (Murphy knows a thing or two about those), a spot-on cameo from David Bowie singing backing vocals, and hyper-literate lyrics that allude back to Kierkegard’s theory of a “reflective age”, a time of “ambiguity and passive contemplation” where art is just a reflection of our preconceptions, as theorized by Jon Pareles of the New York Times. Murphy’s influence is obvious, but it still sounds like the explosive, fantastic Arcade Fire we love and, as the opening track, it makes a promise the band has some trouble keeping.

A musical jumble, the album vaguely follows the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. The lyrics spin an intricate web of themes (the outsider, love, death, loss, mortality, and religion) and are generally amazing throughout the album with a couple of exceptions: “Supersymmetry” and parts of “Afterlife” feel too simplistic while “Porno” is overly melodramatic. Musically, things are sometimes iffy – while the songs are intricate creations with strong melodies and instrumentation, a sense of form over quality sometimes drags them down. In the band’s rush to bring their grand schemes into reality, they gloss over things or make awkward choices. A “playing live” concept results in a poor mixing job on “Normal Person” and “You Already Know” and ends up coming off as clumsy and unwieldy. Similarly, the ambient final 6 minutes of “Supersymmetry” serves little purpose musically. The hodgepodge of styles doesn’t always flow well together, and a couple songs, “Awful Sound” and “Joan of Arc”, work in spite of the genre they’re supposedly representing.

However, despite some poor choices, there is far too much talent here for Reflektor to fail. While I don’t think it will knock either Funeral or The Suburbs from their perch, it’s still a very good record and highlights abound (“Reflektor”, “We Exist”, “Here Comes The Night Time”, “It’s Never Over”, “Afterlife”). Clearly, Arcade Fire is willing to throw caution to the wind in an age where very few bands are prepared to do the same and this is both important and exhilarating. This album succeeds, despite the errors, because the group is willing to try, and that bodes very well for the future.

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