“Hey! You! Have you heard the new Arcade Fire album?”
“No, not yet! What does it sound like? I’m really excited, having read that the band’s going to incorporate Haitian sounds and with James Murphy on production. I’m expecting them to sound like Talking Hea—“
“It sounds like every other Arcade Fire album.”
—– —– —– —– —–
Well, that’s not exactly true. There’s one noticeable difference in sound – the bass guitar grabs your hips and has you pulling out the Elaine Benes moves even if you thought staying still was your thing. That’s all James Murphy’s doing; he’s shown us some of the most agreeable dance music of the past decade – even the stuff that he’s produced for other bands are more danceable than their usual stuff (see: Gorillaz’ “DoYaThing,” Pulp’s “After You”), so he fully understands the power of that instrument in a way that the band has never shown in their preceding albums. Seriously, listen to the one the singlehandedly powers “We Exist” (probably the most melodic part of the album) or the one that shimmies on the dancefloor with the jangly guitar in “You Already Know” (though, minor qualm here, why does Win Butler sing the title’s words in a faux-accent? “We al-re-ti know?” Ugh).
On a less positive note, the lyrics suck. Of course, people are going to tell me that the lyrics in music don’t matter – they’re the same people who have a notebook full of their favorite Yorkeisms and the ones that could probably recite “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” by heart without ever having tried to memorize it. Funeral was informed by emotion, powered by the deaths of family members, love for the living and nostalgia for simpler times. Their penchant for silly couplets started rearing its ugly head in Neon Bible, but in the guise of their most political offering to date, they were easy to overlook (sample rhyme: “Mirror, mirror on the wall / Show me where them bombs will fall”). The similar problem happened with The Suburbs, but under homey themes (“I want a daughter while I’m still young”), we forgave them, didn’t we? With Reflektor, they’re not talking about anything at all. “Down on their knees / Begging us please / Praying that we don’t exist” – who, exactly, are they talking about? The general public? Certainly not. “Little boys with their porno / Oh, I know they hurt you so / They don’t know what we know” – who says porno when porn rolls right off the tongue? Is it just so you could make a rhyme with it? What exactly is it that you know? And while previous Arcade Fire songs had the beauty of growing on me because of their lyrical insights, I’m sorry to say that the opposite is happening here. “I thought, I found the connector / It’s just a reflector.” Well, gee, thanks.
And while we’re on the topic of Reflektor’s noticeable flaws, let’s talk about the length. You’d think that the band’s first double album would inform you that this would be the band at their most ambitious – need I remind you of the standards set by the White Album, Exile on Main Street, London Calling, etc.? Reflektor is decidedly long, being only slightly over the maximum allotted time of CD’s, but having almost 20 minutes of useless space: the 10-minute hidden track that features too many colors to be called ambient and those colors too afraid to go over the lines to be called anything else; the 6-minute coda of useless sounds that close “Supersymmetry;” the pretty but also pretty useless “Here Comes the Night II” that serves only as a connector (or maybe it’s just a reflector). Elsewhere, first disc closer “Joan of Arc” starts well enough with its vocal and bass stomp, but instead of closing it out at the 3:25 mark (where it basically ends naturally), the band add a long fade out that stretches the track for another 2 minutes. It doesn’t help that Arcade Fire’s palette, despite their penchant for having as many instruments as they can find, has never been that big. The aforementioned double albums worked because of their insistence of covering as many genres as possible. Here? Danceable indie rock and … Welp, I guess that’s it. You’re right, you’re right. I’m being too harsh – there is one 2-minute dub exploration (“Flashbulb Eyes”).
The good stuff is mostly piled on the first disc. You’re probably already on intimate terms with the title track, featuring some new weapons that we haven’t heard from the band before this point in time and are thusly appreciated (saxophone, bongos) and old tricks that we love the band for and are thusly appreciated (bilingualism, Win Butler and Régine Chassagne trading lines like lovers do and ought to, a structure that climaxes, splits and then climaxes again like some of the best songs from Funeral, etc.). The David Bowie cameo couldn’t hurt much either. But the title track wins because of its extra details: Win Butler briefly deviating from the original melody by quietly launching into a falsetto at the 4:23 mark or Colin Stetson quickly doing Colin Stetson things at the 1:44 mark. “Normal Person” and “You Already Know” also feature an announcer that gives either track a live feel that adds to the liveliness (“HOW DO YOU DO?” “THANK YOU!” “ARCADE FIRE!”). Sure, the former might suffer a little from insufferable lyrics (“Is there anyone as strange as a normal person” will likely resonate with you if you’re a misanthropist) but it hugely benefits from a guitar that sounds like the sort that Robert Fripp would’ve played for David Bowie. Similar to “Reflektor,” “Here Comes the Night Time” launches into a climax and then switches on us (at the 4:35 mark) with guitars juiced up from spaghetti Westerns before returning to its original theme. The steel drums were also a nice touch.
Most of the self-indulgences lies within the second disc. “Porno,” in addition to its eyeroll of a title and aforementioned pasty lyrics, decides that a one-note riff from a squishy synth that sounds like it was thrown away from a better synth band was worth hearing for 6 minutes. “We Used to Wait” also ran on a one-note riff, but it ran for 2 minutes less and had an exciting climax when things threatened to get boring. “Afterlife,” which might be the second disc’s sweetest cut, is powered by the same trick, so it’s just a matter of poor sequencing that it has to follow “Porno.” The band reveal absolute sadism within the back-to-back “Awful Sound” and “It’s Never Over.” “Awful Sound” features a long and steady (read: drawn out) climax with the album’s most thumping drums and some lovely airy backing vocals (think: Talking Heads’ “Air”) to fill in any empty spaces, but the band just cuts it short instead of giving us any sort of finale, as if to fulfill the prophecy of the song’s title (Comparisons of the song to “Hey Jude” are a little overstated. Comparisons to “Revolution 9” make me think that the Chicago kush must be supreme). Similarly, the band has you checking your watch continuously over the 7-minute runtime of “It’s Never Over,” and when the song ends with “It’s over too soon,” you can picture the band laughing at us. I’m fine with the concept of sadism, but I’m also aware that most sadomasochistic relationships often feature a safe word to stop before too much becomes too much.
To conclude, I’ll leave you guys with the last paragraph of Alexis Petridis’s review from The Guardian: “It’s hard not to think that Reflektor would be a great album if Arcade Fire had chosen to scale it down a bit: ruthlessly chop away the lesser songs, think long and hard about the point where excoriating the hollowness of celebrity and success starts to sound petulant and ungracious. But scaling things down is not what Reflektor is about. It wants to be a grandiose statement befitting a band who fill stadiums and win Grammys and debut at No 1: the kind of record people don’t just play from beginning to end, but pore over, like the famous double albums of the 60s and 70s. Instead, it sounds like the work of a band that have plenty of good ideas, but increasingly can’t tell them from their bad ones – or won’t be told.”
Oh, and one more thing: WHERE THE FUCK IS REGINE CHASSAGNE? Like I know she’s probably busy taking care of your newborn son, Win Butler (congratulations, by the way), but maybe be a proper husband and help her out so that she can sing some lead vocals next time. We miss her.