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Album review: Arcade Fire’s ‘Reflektor’

The 10-piece band crafts a complicated disco epic.

By Jack Howland | Nov. 3, 2013

Tags: Music Reviews

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To call Arcade Fire ambitious would be an understatement.

The Montreal-based band, led by happily married Win Butler and Régine Chassagne, aims for nothing less than grand, sweeping statements. Its breakthrough album Funeral was like nothing else in indie music: an arena-rock record that communicated themes of love, loss and escape. The next two albums pushed the band’s vision to dizzying heights, with the criminally overlooked Neon Bible and Grammy-winner The Suburbs.

Arcade Fire doesn’t care if its music gets played on the radio or not — the band’s going to make overly-long, deeply personal, larger-than-life music.

With the two-disc Reflektor, Arcade Fire has an honest-to-god disco-punk epic. The 10-piece band maintains its ability to make grandiose anthems, while stepping outside its comfort zone lyrically and musically. This is a different Win Butler from the guy playing acoustic guitar and singing about wanting a daughter on The Suburbs. Butler, who actually got a son earlier this year, sounds angry and irritated over disco-infused synth and distorted guitar. His spirit is weakened by this cold reflective age we’re living in, but he’s far from defeated.

“I want to break free, but will they break me,” Butler sings over bouncing bass and Haitian-inspired congo drums on the title track, “Reflektor.” The song is pure, surging pop, building to a surprising vocal cameo from Arcade Fire superfan David Bowie. It also sets the stage for the rest of the album — it’s ominous yet brimming with hope, like most tracks across the expansive two discs. Just when Butler sounds like he’s about done with this generation, he sings “But I see you on the other side.” It’s a pretty poignant line; even though devices and "reflektors" have consumed his life, love seems to break through.

The track is also dancier than almost anything Arcade Fire has ever made. As a matter of fact, there’s an electronic aspect on nearly every track, thanks in part to producer and former LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy. Murphy is a master of electro — see albums Sound of Silver and This is Happening — and his influence dances across most songs. But Arcade Fire makes the music completely its own, combining synth beats with big guitar and even some Haitian percussion. It creates a timeless sound, like Arcade Fire is such a force, its music spans generations.

The album’s first disc is undoubtedly the dancier of the two. Tracks like the disco-inspired “We Exist,” and the twangy, raw “Normal Person” are sure to call 20-somethings to the dance floor. The standout track on the first disc is “Here Comes The Night Time,” a sprawling, six-minute collision of sentiment and party. The song drops you into a raging fiesta with furious guitar and murmured voices, then balances out with one of the catchiest piano melodies in recent memory. It’s big, booming and infectious.

But if the first disc urges you to dance until your legs are sore, the second disc calls you to sit down and and get real. “Here Comes The Night Time II” sets up a very different kind of atmosphere: a dark, brooding world where death seems inescapable.

“Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)” is a classic Arcade Fire song that slowly careens and builds to a string-filled climax. As the tortured Butler sings about the worst sound he’s ever heard — silence from someone he loves — it’s hard not to resonate in at least some small way.

The album’s B-side, the more emotionally-charged disc, only builds from “Awful Sound.” “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)” is a pulsing allusion to Greek mythology that seems to describe the never-ending quality of life and death. Butler’s thoughts about death continue onto the fantastic, heart-wrenching “Afterlife.” Packaged in a shimmery disco anthem, Butler discusses the childlike fears and fantasies of heaven: “When love is gone / Where did it go? / And where do we go?” Butler sings with Chassagne accompanying.

The emotional poignancy of “Afterlife” makes it the strongest song on Reflektor, and quite possibly one of Arcade Fire’s best songs ever. It challenges the listener to confront the idea of non-existence; it doesn’t offer any easy answers.

The whole album is pretty damn challenging. Like Arcade Fire’s excellent previous albums, Reflektor isn’t about any one thing. There are songs about the afterlife, but that doesn’t make it an album about theology. It’s also an album about a reflective generation where art and pop culture rarely go hand in hand. Reflektor is ultimately overstuffed with ideas, but almost all of it resonates. It’s an album of the moment filled with potent wisdom from one of the greatest songwriters of the 2000s.

Sure, sometimes Butler can become a bit preachy and heavy-handed. “Porno,” a trippy track that genuinely sounds like it could be a Kanye West sample, comes off as a bit too dramatic. The same goes for the frantic, xylophone-filled “Flashbulb Eyes.” But even the weaker tracks on Reflektor are thought-provoking and wholly original. That’s the thing about a band with too much ambition: even when they miss the mark, they still seem to dazzle.

MOVE gives Reflektor 4 out of 5 stars.

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