Monday, December 16, 2013
Arcade Fire: Reflektor (2013)
Don't wanna fight in a holy war
Don't want the salesmen knocking at my door
I don't wanna live in America no more
- Arcade Fire, 2007
When you look in the sky
Just try looking inside
God knows what you might find
- Arcade Fire, 2013
The theory of Reflektor is more enjoyable than the somewhat inexplicable glob of material it finally is. The sound of Haiti that's lurked under the surface from the beginning, the '70s reggae influence that hasn't, and the presence of James Murphy -- not my choice for a modern-day savior of dance, but not a clueless one either. Some of us have wanted Arcade Fire to make the disco album they've occasionally hinted they could for years now. Early glimpses of the title song and "We Exist" implied that this was what we were getting with the band's eagerly awaited fourth album. Both sparkle and bite while retaining a sense of the interplay and democracy that has made them such a wonderful entity for a decade now.
"Eagerly awaited" is a meaningless phrase at this point, for this band. Every album they've released has somehow proven bigger than the last, culminating in the #1 chart showing and Grammy win three years ago (jesus bloody christ) that assured us all that this was now a Major Band, with Major Responsibilities. The marketplace being what it is, this is about as big a deal as a rock group can possibly be today -- so from now on, every move Arcade Fire made would inspire bile and adulation in equal turns. The point was, everyone would have an opinion; it was now obligatory.
One has to admire the band to some degree for responding to their wave of massive success with so relentlessly offbeat a recording as this, but it's also understandable to feel somewhat disappointed. (The words of neither the passionate defenders nor the passionate skeptics are backed up all that well by the music, though the almost uniformly weak lyrics give some ammunition for the Other Side.) Hearing in fragments while driving (I have a short commute), I personally thought the thing was probably a revelation. Every song feels like one portion of a terrific whole, and you can sense a build of momentum. When actually sitting down and listening to both discs in tandem, what's odd is that the momentum is indeed there -- and never really builds to anything. There aren't any climaxes, apart from the two opening cuts; there's no moment of revealing, emotional peak. It seems to drive right back into itself.
If we must play into the double-album game, disc one has the four-on-the-floor and big ol' rock band stuff, though when you listen closely you'll find it's really quite muted. The most distinctive arrangements are sometimes fitted to less than stellar songwriting exercises ("Flashbulb Eyes," "Joan of Arc") and the indulgences of "Normal Person" -- the freshfaced, silly, obvious "anthem" so many critics have accused Arcade Fire of writing but that they never really have until now -- which sounds like something from a Garbage album are only partially offset by the straightforward charms of "Here Comes the Night Time" and "You Already Know." Still, these songs all have hooks and distinguish themselves individually. The parts being greater than the whole is hardly a unique or new problem for an honestly well-meaning rock band.
Unfortunately, that second disc is rather lethal. "It's Never Over" gets off its feet eventually, but "Porno" and "Afterlife" are rather poor excuses for catharsis, even if they're not exactly failures onto themselves. Reflektor earns its bloat from The Suburbs and its success. But while Suburbs had a good deal of filler, it also built to several peaks, in particular "Half Light II," "Suburban War," and "Sprawl II," that were as full-hearted, ecstatic and moving as anything from Funeral and Neon Bible. The record's best moments seemed to give the dross its point.
Now, there aren't really any peaks or any real celebratory moments. You could sequence this entirely differently and maybe convince someone it was a decent party album, a decent dance-rock album, or at least a decent groove album, but as it is, it undercuts its own charms by contributing an entire separate CD of grim, cantankerous despair. As much as it hurts, we must prepare to admit that Arcade Fire are preparing to become the next generation of Dad Rock. The Suburbs suggested that they might enter this phase of their undeniably illustrious career quite gracefully; Reflektor has me a bit worried.
To be perfectly clear, most of the songs on Reflektor have considerable merit, and they reward increased exposure. As much as my feelings on Reflektor have evolved through the year, I at least kind of like everything except for "Porno" and the dreadful "Normal Person." But the record is labored and -- given its obvious benchmarks in New Romantic synthpop and late '70s dance music -- remarkably joyless. It's as if U2 packaged their last truly bold record, Pop, and their wrongheaded decades-spanning apology for it on the same record. That's honestly not where I thought this band would be at this point; the bombast ought to still feel so much warmer.
Arcade Fire EP (2003)
Neon Bible (2007)
The Suburbs (2010)