When Arcade Fire released the lead single from its upcoming album, Reflektor, back on Sept. 9, many fans found themselves puzzled yet intrigued by the new direction. With David Bowie backing vocals and a more focused percussion section to create a 70s-rock meets 80s-disco vibe, the band seemed just about finished exploring indie rock and anthems such as “Wake Up” and “Sprawl II” in exchange for a different kind of expansive sound.
Sure enough, once Reflektor finally made its way online, it was met with just as much praise as criticism. Some deemed it a masterpiece and their finest album ever, while others tore it apart for being too bloated and excessive. Reflektor is certainly the group’s most critically divisive album since Neon Bible, although it’s clearly much more ambitious than its sophomore effort.
Before the release of what was easily the most anticipated album of the year, next to Kanye’s Yeezus and Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, there was an overwhelming sense of pressure resting on the shoulders of the band. So, now that the dust has begun to settle, what do we make of Reflektor?
The album itself is split into two halves: Disc 1 and Disc 2. Disc 1 carries the general vibe of the opening track, “Reflektor.” It mostly focuses on weaving the rock vibes from previous work with the new synth and reverb-heavy atmosphere present on tracks such as the “Month of May”-reminiscent “Normal Person” and “You Already Know,” although Win Butler starts off the former song with a small interlude asking the listener if they “like rock n’ roll music, cause I don’t know if I do.”
If anything is clear by the midway point of Disc 1, it’s that Arcade Fire is finished being “that indie rock band.” If you didn’t know what Arcade Fire was after 2010’s Grammy-winning The Suburbs, listen up, because the group is here to stay. And just as the album moves between its rock roots and new dance-oriented rhythms, songs like “Here Comes the Night Time” and “Joan of Arc” switch tempos at random points throughout the song to give each a unique shift that tosses the viewer around for an unforgettable experience of mirth. If you’re not smiling from joy by the end of Disc 1 then you haven’t yet experienced Reflektor properly.
As “Joan of Arc” ends and Disc 1 transitions into the second half of the album, the listener is left with the sound of wind blowing in the distance as the music fades into the abyss. What follows next is arguably the better of the two halves, beginning with “Here Comes the Night Time II,” which has a familiar tragic disposition to “The Suburbs (Continued)” as it slows the tempo down, making the world feel heavier and much more difficult to maneuver against the pain and sorrow of love.
The next two songs are meant to be played back to back, and rightly so. “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)” and “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)” are the pinnacle of Reflektor, the first being a gorgeous building anthem that chronicles the love of one man for one woman. It doesn’t matter whether you want to follow the Greek myth or simply let the song wash over you. If Disc 1 focused on the larger theme of isolation and love lost between people during the Reflective Age, “Oh Eurydice” is about the bonds of love, and uses the story of Orpheus and Eurydice to highlight the power that can still exist when the world fights against your passions.
But the story doesn’t end there. “Oh Orpheus” is a powerful ballad that tears through the emotion of “Oh Eurydice” and knocks it off its feet. Trust and faith are reckoned with and seemingly deemed impossible to believe in. At this point, the album shifts into its most cynical and grim-sounding piece with “Porno” which, no doubt thanks to the fantastic production by James Murphy, sounds like a post-breakup LCD Soundsystem song. But after this there is a notable shift back to the upbeat “Afterlife” before the album ends with the long but not unnecessary “Supersymmetry,” which closes with a slowed-down reversal of the first half of the song.
There will no doubt be many critics who argue that the album reaches the greatness that Arcade Fire set out to create but that it stumbles over its length and excess, but I would argue that it’s just as close to a perfect album that any artist has produced in 2013. Reflektor is all about duality both on a small and large scale: Disc 1/Disc 2, “Here Comes the Night Time I/II,” the reflected second-half of “Supersymmetry,” themes of love and loss, life and death, reality and reflection, man and woman, etc. It is only fitting that the album dives head first into these concepts and explores them thoroughly from each side. And it ends on the opposite side from where it started: a yearning to live in the moment without the worries of death and loss that can plague the mind throughout life.
Two other albums came to mind after I finished listening to Reflektor: Talking Heads’ Remain in Light and Radiohead’s Kid A. The first makes more sense while the other is a bit of a stretch, but hear me out. Spending a couple of years heading in one direction with each album proving better than the last, both Talking Heads and Radiohead took great risk on each of their fourth LPs. For Talking Heads, it was more about sonic experimentation and the blending of funk, African rhythms, and lead singer David Byrne’s poetic lyrics, while Radiohead sought to blend Yorke’s voice with the experimental electronica to heighten the themes of alienation and paranoia in the age of computers. Reflektor lands somewhere in the middle. Obviously nowhere near as transformative as Kid A, the album creates a similar feel in terms of new direction and sound.
It’s doubtful that Reflektor will set a trend for how music will sound in the coming decade, but it still is an impressive shift from the raw rock power of Funeral and the deceptively simple nature of The Suburbs. Both Kid A and Reflektor even end with a final song that strips lyrics away and eventually transforms into soft, ambient soundscapes that bleed out into complete silence. Even the couple of blips that start off Disc 2 allude to a kind of rebirth akin to the Radiohead track “Kid A.”
It’s difficult to place Reflektor in Arcade Fire’s catalogue after only a few days of listening. I’m typically a bigger fan of The Suburbs than Funeral, but both are masterpieces. Neon Bible is definitely the weakest album of their discography, but it’s still an impressive sophomore album that expands on the themes and sounds that Funeral generated back in 2004.
Reflektor heads in such a different direction for the group that it can’t really be considered on the same level as the first three albums. Only time will tell where Reflektor finally comes to reside in the scope of Arcade Fire’s career, but I predict that years down the line it’ll be considered their magnum opus by many. Just you wait.