Fresh Off the Airwaves: ‘Reflektor’

My dad loves Arcade Fire. This is music-wise, to most people, probably a bad thing. But there’s a certain charm to waking up in the middle of a car ride with the Subaru stereo blasting one of the 15 or so songs burned to dad’s “best of” Arcade Fire mix. When I asked him to explain his love of the band, he more or less said he liked their music in a documentary and live on television. With a little more pressing, he decided that their lyrics were the most compelling part of the band, alluding to “the one about tunnels in the snow.”

And this song – “Neighborhood #1,” opener of their debut album Funeral – illustrates what Arcade Fire, prior to October’s Reflektor, achieved so consistently well. The band created large-scale musical anthems from small scale, personal experiences – about building tunnels in the snow, about power outages, about sitting on swing sets in the suburban sprawl. Even when the music seemed the most grandiose, the grandeur was personal – Win Butler’s pained yelps were also your own, and his mediations on love and the perils of mundane office life were equal to your fears of growing older, disappointed and regretful. With the success of 2011’s The Suburbs, it seemed as if everyone had been swept into Arcade Fire’s immersive, exhaustive, emotive world.

From the roll-out of Reflektor, however, Arcade Fire seemed to have abandoned some of the intensely personal aspects of their previous three albums. With a marketing campaign that preferred mysterious graffiti stencils and donning masks during performances, Reflektor arrived shrouded in some mystery (or, at least, as much mystery as they could retain after a Saturday Night Live performance).

Reflektor’s music follows suit. From the opening title track, the break is immediately apparent. Instead of the melancholy march of The Suburbs’ opening title track, Reflektor, after a few heralding drum hits, settles into a dark groove with synths and saxophones buried in the mix. That isn’t to say that the album immediately abandons all of Arcade Fire’s prior style – starting from a quiet verse that features Butler and Régine Chassagne trading lyrics and switching languages, Reflektor builds and crescendos until, occasionally, it bubbles over with emotion, almost helplessly bursting at the seams.

Yet the pitfalls of Reflektor, as an album, are also immediately evident from its title track. At more than seven minutes long, Arcade Fire appear to have matched the musical grandiosity of previous albums with its length. Bearing the production influence of James Murphy (of the late LCD Soundsystem), the song, like many of LCD Soundsystem’s songs, meanders with questionable addition of a near-spoken word piece.

Much of the rest of Reflektor follows the same frustrating vein, alternating between glimpses of genius and failures in experimentation. The bouncy “You Already Know”  is preceded by the abrasive and unnecessary “Normal Person.” The second disc, already mired by clumsy allusions to Orpheus and Eurydice, features songs like “It’s Never Over,” which, despite masterfully colliding the new, dance-oriented sound of the album with the guitar-driven urgency of their prior work, limps to a quiet conclusion. “Afterlife,” a late highlight, shimmers with propulsive synths, a driving undercurrent to Butler’s weary vocal, which builds to a plea to “scream and shout, ’til we work it out.” But it too falls after the unfortunate “Porno,” a labored, sleazy slow-motion dance.

This leaves Reflektor as the one consciously “difficult” album in the Arcade Fire catalog. But for all the genre-blending and the much-discussed Caribbean influence of the album, Reflektor’s experimentation often attempts too much and achieves too little. My disillusioned father “didn’t like their newer stuff now that it’s so produced.” Besides cementing his status as a sort of dad-hipster (a mantle I can only aspire to assume in my later working years), this complaint exposes the pitfalls of Reflektor. Instead of the rough-hewn, heart-on-the-sleeve anthems of Funeral or Neon Bible, Reflektor, for all its saxophones and hand drums, appears all too willing to misguidedly sacrifice the personal for the experimental.