Arcade Fire – Reflektor


When I sat down to write about Reflektor, the Canadian super-group’s fourth full-length album and the first one since The Suburbs clinched the unexpected Album Of The Year Award at the 2011 Grammy’s, I realized how painfully difficult it can be to write about music. As the saying goes, ‘writing about music is like dancing about architecture’, which I’m fairly certain I’ve already wrote once in another review. The thing is, the first couple of time I’ve heard Reflektor I was trying my hardest to find as many faults as possible, not because I’m deliberately trying to find ways of criticizing a piece of art, but this is after all a blog that at least tries to add something to the overall discussion of contemporary music, an event like a new Arcade Fire album should be viewed from different angels. I ended up finding several argumentative aspects, just to end up scraping them all. Then I pretty much repeated this routine before coming to the conclusion that Reflektor is, simply put, damn stellar. With every new listen, I witnessed how Pandora’s Box gradually unfolded before me. I’ve gone from skeptic to moderately positive to, as you’ll see, almost euphoric. I initially wrote things like; “they (Arcade Fire) are painfully self-conscious, and trying too hard to make a “classic” album.” On my second draft I wrote: “Reflektor is an eclectic creation, shifting styles and textures while still sounding very much like Arcade Fire. There are clear tendencies that they might take themselves a bit too seriously, but when they largely succeed, who cares about their intentions.” So the mood shifted a bit between the two drafts, but in the end it was all rubbish. This is my third time around, and I would gladly write something like; Arcade Fire has made one heck of an album, most likely the best of their career, and be done with it. But then again, another side of my wants to elaborate on that, otherwise, what’s the point of running a blog?

By now you’ve likely read all there is to read about Reflektor, possibly giving it a few spins to form your own opinion, so I don’t blame you if you click the ‘return’ button on your browser. But if you decide to stay than hopefully I won’t end up boring you to death. Since there are countless other good and not so good reviews that discussed the albums thematic approach of how technology can lead to isolation and effect relationships that Win Butler ultimately traces back to Kierkegaard’s poem The Present Age, I’ll leave it at that. I’ve also tried hard to avoid the old clichés of writing how each individual song sounds or what they are akin to. But yes, there are countless references to be found, and you don’t even have to look very far; David Bowie makes a well-documented appearance on the title track, but his influence on the record goes much deeper than that. And yes, there are all sorts of traces of Talking Heads and Sandinista! that’s been well elaborated on, and if you’d decompose the album even further, you’d find that a track like “Here Comes The Night Time” sounds like Pink Floyd meets a muddle of dub and disco (if there even exists such a thing), or that “We Exist” carries a bass line analogous to “Billie Jean” coated in cocaine-styled glam funk. There are traces of reggae, dub, rockabilly, punk, electro – and it’s just the tip of the iceberg. But all these influences are intertwined into a complicated puzzle that hardly benefits of getting dissected. We bloggers have a tendency to decompose every piece of music down to their tiniest fraction, and while it can do the trick when introducing a new artist or contextualizing a certain song, it does not benefit an album like Reflektor. The analogy to that famous or infamous Martin Mull/Frank Zappa quote I referred to earlier has never been a more fitting one. Reflektor stirs something that lies deeper. Whether through its rhythmical progression, the lyrical themes that captures the complex relationship of technology and society, or that it’s plain and simply damn good songwriting, it gives important reasons to why music has always played a central part of my life. The sheer joy of hearing an album like this is what I keep searching for. It seems that most of my favorite albums were made before my birth or at least when I was at a considerably younger age, so to be a part of the zeitgeist of Reflektor, is an event that doesn’t come too often.

Far from everybody agrees however, and as you probably already understand Reflektor is a polarizing record. Some reviewers ramble on about how long the tracks are, or that they’ve “gone on a bender” and in the process created an overblown, hollow album that reflect a self-conscious band ready to crumble under their own pompousness (not far from what I wrote in my first draft, which is a good point why first, second or even third impressions seldom make much sense when it comes to the discussion of true art), but if you listen closer to Reflektor, I assure you, the tracks length are justified. They explore and introduce new perspectives to each of the compositions, while bridging phenomenally from one mood to another. Yes, the album can come off as painfully calculated, with everything orderly at place and nothing left for chance, but it also reflects the work of a band that in the hands of James Murphy, toned down their excessiveness and emotionally charged aptitudes to fit into a new environment. That makes all their previously overblown gestures substantially more easy-going and joyous. This is the sound of a band that is trying to push the image and preconceptions of what and who they are, while figuring out how they fit into their surroundings. But the same could be applied for some of the most successful bands/artists that managed to strive beyond their initial success. U2 did it with Achtung Baby, Bowie did it by moving to Berlin and New Order did it after the tragic death of Ian Curtis. Point being that without the necessity for change, all bands runs the risk of fading before our eyes. For Arcade Fire, this meant a trip to Régine Chassagne’s native home of Haiti that spawned new rhythmical ideas for Win Butler and his crew. Whether or not you actually can feel or hear the Haitian rara sound is not the point. That trip itself spawned a number of new ideas and directions, leading them to relocate in a studio in Jamaica instead of Louisiana and may even have contributed to bringing Murphy onboard.

But the question remains, why is Reflektor a masterpiece? I’m not sure there is an easy way to answer that. I guess for the same reasons as The Dark Side Of The Moon or Exile on Main Street are considered as timeless classics. It’s eclectic, exploring and takes some of the sounds of the greatest records ever made and shapes it into something completely dissimilar to everything else. Arcade Fire didn’t peek with Funeral or The Suburbs. I’m not even sure they’ll do with Reflektor. They are constantly on the move and it’s impossible to comprehend where they’ll take it from here. But at this point, it’s getting obviously clear that Arcade Fire is the only living band that can balance intelligent and literate songwriting with brilliant compositions that manage to strike a chord with a broad audience, including everything from the hardboiled indie crowd to the casual mainstream listeners. And in the end, I can’t think of another band or artist that has this broad appeal without the need for mass media and daytime radio endorsement. This is a band that writes highly intelligent songs blown to anthemic proportions that can fill an arena or headlight any of the major festivals. What other band does? And even if you can think of a couple, what other band has done it for so long and so consistently? We already know that at least two out of their three previous albums will remembered as some of the most important of this young millennium, yet it will be impossible to comprehend the impact of Reflektor for years to come, but as for now, it strikes me as the culmination of their career.

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