Arcade Fire - Reflektor

What happens when the prototypical hipster band enters mainstream awareness? What happens when an eight-piece band from Montreal win an Album of the Year Grammy, and get to play themselves off of the biggest music award show in the world? What happens when they dive into 2013’s most thorough assault of viral marketing?

We learned this year that the answer involves a lot more attention, and a lot more grey area around the black and white of music – squiggled, curling lines of skepticism, marketing, YouTube ads, costumes, Michael Cera in espagnol, and a thousand Pitchfork news stories. The “holier than thou” crowd is eminent with Arcade Fire now - the naysayers have added volume to accusations of “pretentious!” 

Let’s be clear, none of that matters when it comes to Reflektor. Fans of the band need to know that it is not a work where Arcade Fire rested on their laurels after the sunset rock of The Suburbs; improvement after hit-and-miss Neon Bible continues. Newcomers need to know that, if you can take the hype with a grain of salt, this album is the deepest musical success of the calendar year, and replaces Funeral as the new place to start for people discovering the band.

LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy’s fingerprints are all over Arcade Fire’s evolution on Reflektor. His dance music is built in the lower mix – songs that groove through rich, pulsing bass. Songs like “We Exist” and “Here Comes the Night Time” go from indulgent to intoxicating with that masterfully crafted bottom end. It’s a double album filled with songs that draw you in so thoroughly, they fly by without listener exhaustion – it enters the White Album pantheon of 2-LP’s that entice from start to stop.

Helping this enthrallment is the dichotomy between the first and second disc. The first half is Arcade Fire having a bit of ragged fun – long, loose songs give an air of improvisation to a typically tight-lipped, straightforward performance band. This is the most personality Win Butler has shown since Funeral, and it’s on the other end of the emotional spectrum. While mourning loss on their first album, he’s clearly enjoying himself a bit more on Reflektor, candid on standout “Normal Person” with an opening of “Do you like rock and roll music? Well, I don’t know if I do”. The Springsteen-ish air of The Suburbs shows its head in short spurts, but for the most part the band jumps feet-first into the indie dance mentality.

Lyrically, it’s a bit less fun, as should be expected. The album lacks a direct conceptual title (there was no questioning what Funeral and The Suburbs were going to be about), but a concept is certainly at work. Butler muses throughout on technology running rampant in modern life. “Reflektor” directly refers to screens as empty mirrors – a generation growing up with self-identity built through social media. It fits nicely as an evolution of The Suburbs, and gives Butler a lyrical canvas just as complex as the mix he’s singing over.

The second disc is slower, more avant garde, and more rewarding on further listens. “Awful Sound” finds catharsis in a subtle Boards of Canada-esque melody while “It’s Never Over” earns its heroism through Chassagne, whose echoes permeate with the listener through the song’s outro. “Porno”, while being a lyrical low-point, pulses to its own two-step and sees the band at its most futuristic.

And, of course, “Afterlife” – the album’s emotional core - sees Butler cast aside his obsessions on technology and dig right into concepts of death and love. Heart-wrenching, it’s the band again redefining how they’re able to inject emotion into their album’s closing moments. Four times they’ve done it (“Wake Up”, “No Cars Go”, “Sprawl 2” before) and each time that peak has been painted different from the last.

There is no mistaking Reflektor for anything other than a wild accomplishment for a band with nothing left to prove. It stands as the 1b to Funeral’s 1a in the Arcade Fire library, and gratifies immensely even as an indulgent double album – a rare medium for anyone in the “reflective age”. 

Reflektor meets expectations set by its own marketing and, if it wasn’t for one other album more instantly gratifying while just as complex, is the best music this year had to offer.

One Song You Will Listen To Right Now

The title track and first single should be comfortable with most people by now, but taking a step back, it continues to be a stunning piece of music. Murphy is positively tribal with his production, which evolves and grows over the nearly eight-minute span. David Bowie pops his head in for the bridge, instantly recognizable before the song explodes, then fades in jaunty piano and African-inspired percussion. There’s so much at work, you almost forget to appreciate it’s the only great example Reflektor has of Butler and Chassagne trading vocals. All put together, it’s a perfectly-set bar to start the rest of the album.