Arcade Fire – Reflektor | Review

New music type Vulture Josh Carvel analyses the newest from Canada’s finest.

Arcade Fire are moving forward and I’m certainly not going to object to that. Following on from three diverse, critically acclaimed albums, the Canadian six-piece have meticulously crafted ‘Reflektor’ – an exciting, thought-provoking record that moves into fresh territory while retaining the essential strengths of the band’s sound.

The album begins with the undeniably impressive title track. Haitian percussion augments an irrepressible dance beat, and the melancholy voices of Win Butler and Régine Chassagne float above tense, jittery synthesisers. Themes of isolation and conformity surface from the outset: ‘‘Trapped in a prison, in a prism of light/Alone in the darkness, darkness of white.’’

arcade fire reflektor

The song is a brilliant synthesis of the primal and the sophisticated, the celebratory and the paranoid, the old and the new. And while songwriter Win Butler’s lyrical concern with the alienating effect of the modern, technological world (and especially its role in American society) is immediately reminiscent of the band’s epic 2006 release ‘Neon Bible’, he has added to this trope with his experience of a sharply contrasting culture, following what he describes as ‘life-changing’ trips to Haiti and Jamaica in 2011.

This inspiration has clearly quite firmly rooted itself in the band’s music. There are evident stylistic changes to the Arcade Fire sound here when compared to the band’s previous, more guitar-heavy releases. Most of the album’s songs are built around strong rhythms or dance beats, and former LCD Soundystem front-man James Murphy takes up some of the production duties. Yet this is still Arcade Fire doing what they do best: cleverly combining disparate elements and achieving powerful, emotionally resonant soundscapes, all while exploring serious lyrical themes.

James Murphy
James Murphy

Now it’s worth noting that many of the albums songs are on the lengthy side. ‘Reflektor’ is a bold album opener because it is seven and half minutes long, but it does exactly what long songs should do: it moves fluidly through contrasting phases, bringing instruments in and out and building up and back down again.

These change-ups and mood shifts are present throughout the album. For example, ‘Here Comes The Night Time’ plods along nicely for the most part, but every now and then it morphs into an ominous, slowly building chord sequence of the sort that Arcade Fire have made their trademark. Then, around four and a half minutes in, it bursts into the sort of carnival atmosphere that Butler has obviously become so enamoured with, complete with whistles and horns.

Similarly, ‘Normal Person’ has a verse with a tense, constrained feel to it, but the song reaches its chorus by suddenly plunging into a pleasant mess of fuzzy guitars and splashing cymbals. This is the closest Arcade Fire get to good old-fashioned rock and roll on this album. ‘We Exist’, on the other hand, maintains steadier progress with its undulating bassline, only subtly shifting in intensity here and there, despite exceeding the five minute mark.

Win Butler
Win Butler

Moving into side two of this double album, we find Butler drawing inspiration from the 1959 film ‘Black Orpheus’, which adapts the Greek legend of lovers Orpheus and Eurydice to a story set during ‘Carnaval’ in Rio de Janeiro. This typically highbrow influence begets two lovely songs. ‘Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)’ somehow manages to blend busy percussion with gently strummed acoustic guitars and a plaintive melody, while ‘It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)’ contains one of my favourite moments of the album, as the song’s prominent funk beat gives way to some ghostly synthesisers and the pitter-patter of a digital bass drum. Over this Butler sings: ‘‘It seems so important now/But you will get over’’ – a hopeful sentiment that is then immediately challenged when he admits that in reality, ‘‘it’s never over’’, and the full band comes crashing in again.       

Just before the end of side two we come to ‘Afterlife’, the second single from the album and a sure-fire highlight, with its hazy, nostalgic atmosphere and understated guitar work. Echoing his many references to heaven in this album, Butler breathily sings: ‘‘Afterlife/Oh my God, what an awful word’’. The ‘‘Ooh ooh woo-ooh’’ refrain is simple but contagious, and as long as I can hear those luscious male-female harmonies that Arcade Fire craft so well, I am happy.

But if there’s one thing I miss about the Arcade Fire of old, it’s the sense of unbridled energy and zeal – those startling and powerful song climaxes that had the chaotic and blissful character of an epiphany. This album is really much more restrained. It has moments that feel a little too placid, as if the band are treading water. The track ‘Porno’ is perhaps the most lethargic of anything on here, and even the promise of a little punk vitriol at the start of ‘Joan Of Arc’ is soon cut short.


But perhaps any more force and volume would be inappropriate this album. After all, this is the ‘‘reflective age’’, as Butler tells us more than once here. He is borrowing terminology from, of all people, the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who described the difference between the ‘reflective age’, in which people are criticised for risking things, and the ‘passionate’ age, in which people are generally encouraged to go and make things, express themselves and take risks. Butler, in turn, is reflecting on this state of affairs, as he and the band mature and grow together.

The album does not end with a bang, but instead with a beautiful, gently affecting ode to a departed lover – ‘Supersymmetry’. This song is followed by six minutes of eerie, ambient noise, which sounds as if it could be the ugly, technological waste product of the hi-tech modern world that Butler is criticising in his lyrics.

On the whole, ‘Reflektor’ really is an intriguing album, full of the sort of depth that fans have come to expect from Arcade Fire. It has a lot to give on repeated listens, and I look forward to seeing where the band goes from here.

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