Album review: Arcade Fire, 'Reflektor'

Arcade Fire - Reflektor
Arcade Fire - Reflektor (© 2013 Merge Records.)

It's January of 2005, and I'm standing in an Arizona art gallery with some 200 other people. The show is BYOB, and there's a cooler of tall boys at my feet. Seven band members, dressed like they're attending a funeral on Halloween, are crowded onto a 15x15 stage. Behind the band is a hand-painted set — wooden cutouts of two Victorian women in profile. The band members tear through a few anthemic numbers from their debut album. They drip sweat. One member dons a helmet, and beats it with drumsticks. About 6 songs in, the band are interrupted by a train rumbling on tracks that run just on the other side of the gallery's wall. They stop. The train roars and clatters. The front man looks back at the other members. There are subtle nods. The last car passes, and the musicians launch into a cover of The Magnetic Fields' "Born on a Train."

That band, that night — in front of 200 people, in a tiny venue besieged by freight trains — performed like they were The Biggest Band in the World. Eight years, four albums, one Grammy and a veritable ton of notoriety later, The Arcade Fire are, in many ways, still the same band I saw play that night. Detractors like to accuse the band of being drunk on fame, bloated with a sense of self-importance. Well, I'm here to tell you that they were always that way, even when the only people listening were a bunch of buzzed college kids in a desert town. And why not? If you're going to bother making music, why not make it big? (For goodness sake, this is the band that, on its second album, thought, "Hey, a PIPE ORGAN would sound cool here.") Why not put on a great show for people who spent good money to see you? And why not make music that draws freely, playfully and joyously from your heritage and your heroes?

The band's fourth album is a bubbling cauldron containing all the magic and heart and guts that created The Arcade Fire (Bowie, jazz, Depeche Mode, U2's PopMart spectacle, religious studies, Haiti), and James Murphy is the shaman stirring the pot, teasing out the band's impish spirit. Reflektor is a 75-minute, two-disc hot mess. And it's a whole lot of fun.

There are themes here — nighttime, Greek mythology, critiques of religion, the cult of celebrity, and colonialism — but, unlike past albums, you won't find a thread running through this one (at least I couldn't). Disc 1 begins with the beginning. Listen with headphones and you'll hear the warped opening chords of Track 1 ("Neighborhood #1 [Tunnels]") of their 2005 debut, Funeral. From there, Reflektor meanders delightfully. From the butt-shaking sax and keyboard-driven title track, to the smooth FM-pop of "We Exist," to the dancehall echoes of "Flashbulb Eyes," to the Freddy-Mercury-Meets-The-Smiths frolic of "You Already Know, " Arcade Fire switch genres the way Katy Perry changes costumes. The highest points of the disc — and when I say high, I mean soaring — are the ecstatic, Carnival-esque "Here Comes the Night"; the classic rocker (à la Tame Impala) "Joan of Arc," with its surprising do-wop backing vocals; and "Normal Person," which features a delicious guitar hook, anti-imperialist lyrics, and Win Butler happily donning his Irish hero's wraparound sunglasses and swagger.

Disc 2 is a kind of mediation. It starts in the past — with that vaguely familiar electronic squeep we used to hear at the start and end of cassette tapes. "Here Comes the Night Time II" is a lovely, nocturnal, near-dirge that evokes the hum of crickets on a wet night. The center of the disc is a beautiful two-song dialogue between two mythological figures, Orpheus and Eurydice. The former, "Awful Sound (Oh, Eurydice)," sounds like The Beatles channeled through The Decemberists, and the latter, "It's Never Over (Hey Orpheus)," is pure '80s pop with a wonderful R&B-style refrain. "Afterlife," with its delicate echoes of New Order's "Bizarre Love Triangle," is a solid track, despite being a slightly paler cousin of "Reflektor." "Supersymmetry" closes the album as a sparkling showcase for the band's husband/wife vocals. (Well, technically, a hidden track closes the album — but I won't spoil it for you.)

Even the clunkers on this album are B-students at worst. "Porno" is boring and over-simplified — a latter-day, lesser "Roxanne." The heavy-handed dub of "Flashbulb Eyes" feels like a costume, and the lyrics ("What if the camera really do take your soul?") have the slight, unsavory smell of primitivism. Which brings me to my one critique of this album and of The Arcade Fire in general: Sometimes the lyrics suck.

Win Butler has two modes of lyric writing: the Storyteller and the Preacher. In the first, he is personal, intimate and specific; see, from earlier albums, the gorgeous imagery of songs like "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)" and "In the Backseat," or the narrative leaning of songs like "Neighborhood #2 (Laika)", "The Suburbs" and "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)". When Butler takes to the pulpit, his lyrics are unimaginative, abstract and dependent on cliché. We heard this mode a good bit on Arcade Fire's second album, Neon Bible, but forgave it based on the album's thematic urgency. I find I'm less forgiving of this lyrical mode on Reflektor. Songs destined for greatness are somewhat diminished by lame lyrics ("You're down on your knees, begging us please").

I know what the Arcade Fire are capable of — I heard it on The Suburbs' "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)," the band's first foray into clubland and a standout track, musically and lyrically. But they're not quite there yet. Reflektor, for me, finds the band maintaining their pedestal status, but the album is no masterpiece. That, I believe, is forthcoming.

Have you heard the album? What do you think of it? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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