With Arcade Fire becoming Hollywood staples, are they remaining true to their intelligent, independent roots or do they suffer from branching out so far?
Montreal’s Arcade Fire is now Hollywood’s Arcade Fire, considering the projects they’ve embarked on since their third album. Their endeavors have included contributing a song to the soundtrack of The Hunger Games and even contributing the Panem National Anthem (which repeats as a frequent and vital leitmotif) to that film’s score. Next on their agenda is the score to Spike Jonze’s romantic science fiction film Her (due in theatres in time for the 2013 Christmas Season).
Somewhere in between the group has even managed to remember that they are a pop band and recorded a new album called Reflektor. This fourth album proves to be as complex and enigmatic as anything we’ve come to expect from Arcade Fire, a band immediately acclaimed enough to produce an early single that is still recognizable (in “Wake Up”) and with enough street credit to back no less an act than David Bowie just after their first album.
Reflektor consists of 13 tracks and echoes the album’s title in its release as a two-disc set. Indeed, duality is a constant theme throughout the album, from the cover art to the song titles like “Supersymmetry”, “Afterlife”, the decoupled song “Here Comes the Night Time”/ “Here Comes the Night Time II” (one half for each disc) and, of course the title song and first single “Reflektor”. The very recording of the album seems to stretch two worlds (and which two apparently changed halfway through the recording). The Canadian band took heavy inspiration from the Rara music of Haiti the home country of multi-instrumentalist and wife of front man Win Butler, Régine Chassagne after a Beatles-to-India-like trip to that Caribbean nation. Arcade Fire began recording Reflektor in Louisiana before packing up everything and finishing the dualistic record down in Jamaica.
While all of these influences can be heard in the strange and catchy creole that is Reflektor, the album hardly qualifies as “World Music”. The single “Reflektor” (initially credited to the fictional band “The Reflektors”) opens the album and sounds, quite simply, a lot like Arcade Fire. Mixing English and French lyrics into the echoing duet, the band creates an electronic wall of infectious dance grooves with tasteful horns and interesting leads. Even with the repetitive chorus (which echoes to the point of sounding like a hip-hop sample), the single remains complex enough to remain entertaining and builds each verse into a rich and listenable dance groove with surprising musical turns.
The second track on the album, entitled “We Exist” is every bit as catchy as “Reflektor”, but delves into existential questions and a sad sort of confusion about life, even as the band’s rhythm section continues to push the tune into the realm of disco flash. Reflektor’s duality is further explored as the listener appreciates the lyrical prayer for nonexistence in a song called “We Exist”. “What if the camera really do take your soul?” asks the next song, “Flashbulb Eyes”, which plays with the obscure depth and somewhat innocuous darkness that Arcade Fire plays with, as Butler both laments the possible loss of his soul and begs that the subject of the song “hit me with your Flashbulb Eyes”.
This sieges into “Here Comes the Night Time”, which starts off as a raucous and thundering percussion-blended track, which slows down almost unbearably as the low synthesized bass trolls by in a Doppler-shifting drive, further implying that the listener is standing still with the song as the world progresses beyond them. Even as the song breathes itself back to a faster paced life, Butler continues to repeat the chorus at the same speed, creating a weird temporal blend. While “Here Comes the Night” plays with speed as part of its makeup, “Normal Person” starts off sounding like a piano-based doo-wop song and evolves into a 1980s New Wave style chorus and break. The music surely grows on the listener, but the lyrics are overly simplistic as Butler criticized the titular normal people in a lament somewhere between the Cure’s sarcastic “Jumping Someone Else’s Train” and King Missile’s intentionally ridiculous “It’s Saturday”.
The first disc closes with the pop-rocker “You Already Know” (single-worthy in itself) and the last song “Joan of Arc”, which continues Arcade Fire’s experiments with variable speeds. The distorted guitars and throbbing bass line, backing the multi-layered voices of the song make this final track of the first half remarkably catchy, but the lyrics feel like something of a rendition of the title figure’s Wikipedia page and a hipster’s attempt at both understanding and modernizing France’s sacrificial saint.
The second disc begins with the once familiar computerized beeps that used to signal the end of an audio cassettes’ side. This leads into “Here Comes the Night Time II”, the much slower and even orchestral version of the previous disc’s song of the same theme. While lyrically virtually the same, the tempo and style of this song is a complete reworking of the original version. A second couplet of songs follows in the form of “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)” and “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)”, both of which continue the less electronic and more lyrically depressing sounds of the opening track as opposed to the (relatively) brighter and poppier first disc. Although “Eurydice” follows some of the Beatles’ slower and more orchestral numbers and “Orpheus” captures much more of a rock bend with an excited chorus, there is still a decidedly downbeat feel to the songs and their moods. If there was any question as to the significance Arcade Fire puts on these two songs, note that the album’s cover features Rodin’s sculpture “Orpheus and Eurydice”.
That tone continues throughout the next three songs with “Porno” ranging from the sorrowful to the angry in both music and lyrics. However, “Afterlife” brings back some of the more danceable New Wave sounds from the previous disc and even echoes the dichotomy of “We Exist”. On one hand “Afterlife” pleads for a chance to “scream and shout till we work it out” and on the other, denies that there is any “afterlife” for love when a relationship ends.
The album itself ends with the track “Supersymmetry”, which continues the subdued dark mood of the second disc and brings the sounds to a mumbling whisper. Although Arcade Fire does elevate “Supersymmetry” into the realm of a sci-fi symphony (a resume in itself for their work on The Hunger Games and Her), the double album ends on a very low and quiet note (figuratively and literally).
To be sure, this ending is intentional on the part of Butler, Chassagne and the band. In fact, the entirety of Reflektor feels calculated and planned on the part of the band to the point that the collection almost feels like a concept album (Butler admits to basing parts of the album on the 1959 film Black Orpheus and Søren Kierkegaard's "The Present Age"). Reflektor doesn’t contain any actually bad songs (the closest we can peg on the collection would be a small amount of filler material), but the impact of a full listen is one of catchy excitement and impressive pop rock which slowly rolls downhill into the murky sonic depths of the more somber second half without any truly punctuating final moment of the record itself.