“Do you like rock and roll music? Cuz I don’t know if I do…” Arcade Fire lead vocalist Win Butler mumbles at the start of Reflektor song “Normal Person”. Even without the spastic, Isaac Brock-esque delivery, you immediately know it’s a joke: the histrionic rocker “Normal Person” is a song toward the end of disc 1 of an indie rock double album with thematic ties to 19th-century philosophy and South American film, takes sonic cues from traditional Haitian music as well as 80s art-rock, and follows up the 2011 Grammy Album of the Year and has been promoted as such. Reflektor is, in short, Arcade Fire’s Event Album, a rock and roll staple.
Arcade Fire’s albums have always had bold identities, but the mentality behind Reflektor is clear and distinct from that of the band that made Funeral and The Suburbs. For one thing, this iteration of the band is much looser, no doubt due to their trip to Haiti (to which band member Regine Chassagne has strong family roots) and the influence of LCD Soundsystem mastermind James Murphy, who produced this album. The band’s always present disco grooves have a stronger kick to them ala LCD. And, like that band, they make up for what they lack in funk with raw power, especially on “We Exist”.
Reflektor follows the “disc 1: immediate, disc 2: experimental” double album formula that’s been around since The White Album. That isn’t to say that disc 1 is more compact, but the songs have more punch to them. The opening title track is a seven minute, slow-burning, multisuite disco jam that’s everything you could want/expect from an Arcade Fire song produced by James Murphy. “We Exist” keeps a more singular groove and steady bassline while giving the band’s string section one of their more prominent roles on Reflektor. This opening combo is the album at its most accessible, locking you in for “Flashbulb Eyes”, a hazy, paranoid, dub inspired interlude about the band’s new fame.
Aside from “You Already Know”, the restraints come off for the rest of disc 1. “Here Comes the Night Time”, Reflektor‘s jubilant tribute to Haitian festival music, explodes triumphantly midway through and reverts to its calmer beat with such precision that it’s impressive even when you know exactly when it’s going to happen. Chassange, somewhat underused throughout the album, gets more exposure during arena-rock stomping first half closer “Joan of Arc”. Both of these numbers, as well as “Normal Person” have a harried sense of claustrophobia, as though the could fall in on themselves at a moment’s notice. Thankfully, they never do, and even as the songs stretch to six and a half minutes, they never quite feel that long.
The second and third songs of disc 2, “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)” and “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)” are the emotional head and the heart of Reflektor, as well as its thematic centerpiece. At six minutes a piece, they’re a lot to ask of an audience, especially for “Awful Sound”, the more subtle of the pair. A light drum beat attempts to ground atmospheric synths and airy bass/guitars that ebb and swell, but without a main idea to latch onto, the song doesn’t have the impact it could. “It’s Never Over” flips the previous song on its head; pounding drums and heavier guitar riffs dominate the majority of the song, giving the quieter parts some dramatic weight. Between the staged instrumentation, Chassange and Butler’s dramatic vocals, and their heartbreaking final verse, “It’s Never Over” saves the entire Eurydice and Orpheus arc from bloat.
In keeping with the tropes of double album-dom, Reflektor‘s uneven as a whole, and yet there’s no graceful way to cut it down. If I did, my first instinct was to ditch “Porno”, a six minute pastiche of 80s pop that unfortunately exists between two of the album’s best songs. “Afterlife” continues Arcade Fire’s tradition of absolutely stellar penultimate tracks, and despite the Haitian drum loops, is the most typically “Arcade Fire” song (indie rock dynamics, cathartic chorus, kinda dancey) on Reflektor. Closing song “Supersymmetry” is a gorgeous if slightly underwritten number that would be vastly improved without its gimmick (the song is 11 minutes, and half of that is ambient coda–it’s meant to be played forward and backward at the same time–no thanks). The flow of the entire album is a little clunky, but that also feels like part of the charm.
If The Suburbs inadvertently put Arcade Fire on the mainstream’s map, then Reflektor is their attempt to minimize themselves as much as possible. Ironically, they’ve done this while acting in the biggest way possible; Reflektor is an album in full on Trying Hard mode. Part of the rollout for the album’s media campaign included an SNL performance, and this performance, to me, sums up Reflektor in its entirety. Extremely stylized and polished, overreaching and a little awkward (those dance moves), but still great fun to watch. Four and a half stars out of five.
tl;dr: On album four, Arcade Fire grow bigger and weirder while trying to smile at the same time. 4.5/5