Indie rockers Arcade Fire present a dramatic double LP that floats above airwaves
With their fourth studio album, Arcade Fire have some big shoes to fill — namely, their own. The Montreal-based group have a devoted following, including some of the most discerning critics of taste and tempo. And yet Arcade Fire somehow continue to outperform themselves with Reflektor, their double LP out today via Merge Records.
This is not music on a whim. Arcade Fire are almost painfully calculating, with each arrangement and dimpled surprise explicitly meaningful. There are no accidents. What’s remarkable is that somehow, even with such deliberation, Reflektor defies artificiality. It’s an undertaking, to create a 13-track album that runs 85 minutes without giving way to verbosity. But there’s a magnetic beauty laced throughout, from the manic electro dance (thanks in part to co-producer James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem fame) and raced starts of the first record to the cascading sonic darkness on the second. It’s an album that promises to marinate in your ears until craving it becomes second nature.
Frontman Win Butler — who with his wife, Régine Chassagne, formed Arcade Fire a decade ago — has noted that the time they spent in Haiti for the earthquake relief effort influences Reflektor significantly. Though Chassagne is of Haitian descent, it was the first time that Butler experienced the rara folk music of the region — a pivotal moment for him, he says, that revealed a different, real way to communicate and connect through music. In turn, Haitian percussionists add to the already layered movements, infusing Reflektor with urgent drums. Also informing the album, however more obviously (just look to the cover art and track titles), is the Greek myth of Orpheus, a talented musician who tries to lead his wife, Eurydice, out of the Underworld only to lose her forever — the anxiety of which is stitched throughout the record.
Reflektor opens with the title track, a marching introduction to the album. With horns and Haitian drums carrying over guest vocals by David Bowie, the track builds in circling chants at the same time apprehensive, curious, and anticipatory. What, it begs, is the ideal? “If this is heaven, / I need something more. / Just a place to be alone / ’Cause you’re my home. / I thought I found a way to enter. / It was just a reflector.”
The popped-up ’80s dance battle “We Exist” follows, complete with synth lead outs, breathy, pleading vocals, and scrolling keys marked by bobbing bass. Later “Here Comes the Night Time” reminds of Arcade Fire’s earlier work, with tinges of the Clash on a track that reflects more vividly on Butler and Chassagne’s time in Haiti. Opening and ending with those rolling, quick drums, the track builds and drops in pattern, piano interludes and electro waves carrying the tone just above a darker horizon. “If there’s no music up in heaven,” sings Butler, “then what’s it for?”
Back-to-back tracks “Normal Person” and “You Already Know” also provide familiar Arcade Fire sounds, the latter particularly catchy with buoyant jaunts masking grim, intuitive lyrics.
The album’s first movement ends on “Joan of Arc,” a tribute to femininity and the power therein. The track opens fully punk, Butler’s feathery voice uniquely complementing by contrast the pace and rash guitar. The initial quickness gives way to stepping drums and bass that set up Chassagne’s French chants, which carry into her sly threat, “And if you shoot, / You better hit your mark.”
Reflektor’s second half slows, the first few songs both a transition and a conversation, with the synth clouds rolling in for “Porno” and Butler’s high notes chilling before “Afterlife” takes off, bringing back some of the energy from the album’s first half. Here, the desperation returns — the fear of loss, a sort of visceral reaction to it. “We know it’s gone, / But where did it go? / And where do we go? / Is this the afterlife? / It’s just an afterlife with you.”
Album-ender “Supersymmetry” proves a true lullaby, with soft synth and Butler and Chassange’s comforting harmonies stepping away so slowly that we don’t realize it’s over until long after the voices have gone.
Reflektor, crafted as it is, leaves an airy feel in its wake, teasing with crescendos that never quite climax. It’s tempting to liken Arcade Fire’s latest album to any number of seminal records, in part because when the dust has settled, there’s the sense that you just experienced something important. And really, it’s because you have.