Reflektor is one of this year’s most anticipated albums, but does it contain the music capable of leaving the legacy it so eagerly desires? Not quite, but it’s a memorable and occasionally stunning attempt, says Piers Barber.
Arcade Fire – Reflektor
Make no mistake, Reflektor – this dense, detailed record of sprawling length, statement two disk formatting and weighty references to Greek tragedy – is Arcade Fire’s attempt at a masterpiece. It’s a pursuit of the standards met by those epic double albums of the 1960s and 1970s, records which absorbed and enthralled, were adventurous in their arrangements and momentous in their subject matter. It’s built to be memorable.
And don’t we just know it. Reflektor is the product of a lavishly choreographed promotional campaign, one which has involved cryptic and controversial guerrilla street art, the conception of fictional band The Reflektors and a succession of tantalisingly attractive teaser videos. The result has been hype reminiscent of that which preceded the unveiling of one of this year’s most underwhelming releases, Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, an album which professed to channel cutting-edge creativity, but in reality suffered from some decidedly uninspired execution. The levels of anticipation surrounding Reflektor produce a similar dilemma: intricate and innovative marketing guarantees sales, but is the music sufficiently momentous to ensure a legacy?
Following on from The Suburbs, their smart but overly exalted third album, this is an important release for Arcade Fire, many critics’ nomination for that cursed Saviour of Rock Music title. Their response is a record which self consciously challenges the boundaries imposed by typical rock releases. “Do you like rock ‘n’ roll music,” lead singer Win Butler asks heavily at the beginning of ‘Normal People’, “cos I don’t know if I do”.
Firstly, the album is flavoured with spices acquired from Haiti, which Butler, with wife and bandmate Régine Chassagne, repeatedly visited following the release of The Suburbs. The Carribbean island’s sparkling musical culture, which Butler claimed “really makes you feel like a hack being in a rock band”, is a clear influence on Reflektor, an album which is more fun than anything the band have previously released. It’s full of playful tempo changes, makeshift percussion flourishes and amusing chunks of irony and humour.
Indeed, ‘Here Comes The Night Time’ is itself a tribute to hypnotic beats and rhythms, beginning with clattering street drums before transforming into a dub-infused groover coloured with affectionately clunky piano smatterings. “If there’s no music up in heaven, then what’s it for,” Butler questions. It’s hearty, imperfect and physical – indeed, these are songs clearly built for Arcade Fire’s carnival equivalent: the celebratory music festival, the congregational sweaty arena. The reggae-tinged, horn-flavoured strut of ‘Flashbulb Eyes’ sounds particularly hand built for a live setting.
Beyond the romantic echoes of Haiti, though, a more tangible influence here is that of producer James Murphy, whose prodigious rock-disco fingerprints are present throughout: on ‘Afterlife’’s skippy rhythms, the fluid drum patterns on ‘Porno’, the electronic, Koreless-like echoes on ‘Flashbulb Eyes’. His greatest achievement, though, is to make a large, noisy rock band sound streamlined and selective. This is no LCD Soundsystem resurrection. Instead, it reflects and refracts the sounds of the Cure, New Order and David Bowie, who contributes backing vocals to the title track and was recently honoured by Murphy in his startling remix of Love Is Lost. “Thought you could lead me to the resurrector/Turns out it was just a reflector” Bowie and Butler lament on the album’s pristine title track, an exquisite slab of mournful disco featuring a delicious piano-led breakdown.
Reflektor tackles the mirroring themes of love and loss, life and death, loosely tracing the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, the musician capable of songs so beautiful that he persuades Death himself to give his lover another chance at life, only to lose her again. A statue of the pair features on the record’s cover, whilst the story forms the basis of the film Black Orpheus, to which the album’s video stream was originally set. The songs which deal with the myth’s most tragic aspects are the most striking: ‘It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)’ is a built on an mighty guitar riff and feisty backing vocals (“you say it’s not me it’s you”), whilst ‘Afterlife’ is a desperate plea for answers to life’s most confusing and consuming problems: “Can we work it out/If we scream and shout?” Decorated by growling guitars and Chassagne’s otherworldly backing vocals, it is the album’s most arresting moment.
Reflektor ends with ‘Supersymmetry’, all rhythmic electronic bleeping, delicate bongo rhythms and ascending strings. It also contains an outro of over six minutes entailing little more than the mutilated sound of a rewinding tape. It’s the moment that’s most likely to attract accusations of pretension, yet its intention – a chance to take stock of Reflektor’s relentless and claustrophobic world – is a worthy one.
More problematic are tracks like ‘Here Comes The Night Time II’, intended as the foreboding mirror to its funkier sister track but which ends up feeling like an unnecessary and largely uninspired luxury. ‘Joan of Arc’ contains neat tributes to strong female leaders, but its call and response chorus is irritating and at worst slightly forgettable. A screeching guitar line cannot save ‘Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)’, which draws from too many styles at once and ends up simply rather bland, whilst ‘We Exist’ meanders on for another two minutes after it’s rather pleasant Michael Jackson-flavoured crescendo. Elsewhere, Jonathan Ross’s cameo, introducing the otherwise pleasantly skippy ‘You Already Know’, is a bizarre and unwelcome intrusion.
Reflektor is a dense, varied and robust record. It’s an album to be consumed in it’s entirety, built to confound the message inferred by publications that include two or three songs ‘To Download’ at the foot of their reviews. It’s occasionally inaccessible, often ambiguous and at points suffers from insufficient streamlining. Still, unlike Daft Punk’s record, it’s home to a world of ambition, genuine attempts at innovation and some moments of sparkling beauty. Is it their masterpiece? Perhaps not, but it’s certainly memorable enough to justify its almost impossible hype.