Four albums in, the members of Arcade Fire have found themselves in a position reserved only for the vastly marketable, intriguingly mysterious, and conspicuously controversial of the music industry (AF somehow manage to fit each of those descriptions) in that we cannot help but watch their every move. Be they of adoring fans, story-hungry journalists, or scrutinizing critics, all eyes are on the Canadian/Texan/Haitian collective. But few would argue the attention is undeserved. 2004’s Funeral remains among the most compelling and devastatingly beautiful albums of the 21st century for its orchestral scope and universal themes of nostalgia and discontent; it’s the kind of record you latch onto like a familiar friend in a time of need.
But while Funeral astounds with its immediacy as soon as the drums on “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” kick in, each subsequent release requires a deeper and deeper listening effort to delve into its depth. Neon Bible with its grim, occasionally overbearing lavishness and The Suburbs with its vast scope of genre and, at the time, unprecedented playing length are no less affecting than Funeral, but yearn to be mulled over with a few spins before entering the pantheon of Great LPs.
Reflektor, with a 75+ minute playing time (not including a 10-minute hidden track) that makes a stroll through The Suburbs seem like a cake walk, follows suit with the pattern the moody yet effervescent indie pin-ups have established: give it some time. We may have come to expect the unexpected from the brothers Butler and company, yet cannot help but feel marginally gun-shy when the disco beats of the lead single title track show up. Reflektor’s bizarre, secretive, and somewhat haughty “guerilla” marketing campaign only further disassociated the album from the intimate charm of the band’s earlier output: when your favorite indie band starts borrowing street-art tactics from Kanye West, things have changed.
But it should be no great shock either that the majority of Reflektor is singularly remarkable and progressive. Indie blogs were ablaze this summer with the news that LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy was producing the effort, but apart from the aforementioned title track, the DFA dance-punk influence is minimal. Rather, the band’s trademark grandiosity (layers of orchestral instrumentation, vocalists emoting out to the rafters) envelops the percussive Haitian “rara” street music frontman Win Butler and multi-instrumentalist Régine Chassagne attempt to embrace. That music’s repetitive nature is apparent on tracks like “Flashbulb Eyes” and “Reflektor”, but if the band seems too comfortable settling into a groove, it is just as happy to sporadically burst out of it too, like on standout “Here Comes the Night Time”.
While split into two halves that differ musically, Reflektor does approach consistency in its lyrical overtones. Disc One finds Butler confronting the existential and pragmatic anxieties of the musician life (“Normal Person”, “We Exist”), eventually pondering the question “If there's no music up in heaven, then what's it for?” on “Here Comes the Night Time”. The intros to “Normal Person” and “You Already Know” feature some roleplaying as a weary, apologetic bar band vs. an enthusiastically-announced headliner, respectively. It might just be a gag, but it functions as a comment on the group’s extraordinary rise from indie label humility to Grammy-winning fame. On “Joan of Arc”, the title heroine acts as a metaphor for the relationship between artist and audience: “First they love you/ Then they kill you/ Then they love you again”: it’s a hauntingly familiar theme in modern society’s relationship with celebrity that the song delineates via a 15th century folk heroine.
Disc Two, beginning with the droning “Here Comes the Night Time II”, is a more solemn, less energetic collection. The sonic landscapes Arcade Fire craft prove particularly spacious here, which follows logic given the album was partially recorded in an abandoned Jamaican castle. Murphy’s electronica touch might punch through again on “Porno”, but the centerpiece of not only Disc Two but the album itself is the one-two punch of “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)”and “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)”. Reaching even further back into folklore with an ancient Greek myth previously riffed on by Nick Cave, Butler and Chassagne return to questioning the role of the musician in the “reflective age”. The burden of criticism and problem of practicality weigh heavier and heavier as the band’s commercial success grows, and these issues manifest themselves thematically all over Reflektor. Why their creative output continues to thrive on their fourth album, however, is by achieving that which Orpheus could not: looking forward, forward, never backward.