Unsettled grooves: Sorting through Arcade Fire’s broad, complicated Reflektor

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“Do you like rock ‘n’ roll music? Cause I don’t know if I do…”

 How should one interpret such a question in the context of Arcade Fire’s fourth album, Reflektor? Is the aside, which Win Butler speaks to kick off disc one’s “Normal People,” an on-the-nose mission statement about the band’s embrace of the patterns and cadences of dance music? An ironic sneer in advance of the most capital-R “Rock” song on the album? A double-layered wink that we’re supposed to read as an inside joke because Arcade Fire, despite some sonic flourishes to the contrary, is still an arena rock band at heart?

I’ve read reviews of Reflektor suggesting each of these and, after several listens through the album, I’ve had moments where it seems like all of them could be true. But let’s not stop at that line: what about all the other “rock” trappings strewn across Reflektor? The Jonathan Ross intro to “You Already Know”? The cassette sound that opens disc two? The whole “The Reflektors”-as-band-name motif which extends beyond the band’s current set of warm-up gigs and onto the album’s liner notes?

I don’t know. And I’m not sure Reflektor has any clear answers for me.

For an album overly concerned with meaning and identity, Reflektor is, strangely, the most broad, shapeless record that Arcade Fire has made. The advance buzz was that this was going to be “Arcade Fire goes dance hall” and “James Murphy as Brian Eno”; neither claim is completely wrong, but neither accurately sums up what’s happening on Reflektor. It’s a sprawling, impeccable-sounding record that seemingly broadens the band’s canvas, but hardly to the degree that the early (and unfounded) Achtung Baby comparisons might have led you to think. It’s an album that uses Greek mythology as metaphor and the afore-mentioned rockist signifiers as framing, but what exactly the album is about remains elusive.

This marks the third time I’ve written at length about an Arcade Fire album shortly after its release. Looking back at my essays on Neon Bible and The Suburbs, my take on them is mostly fully formed. There’s some gawkiness in my wording, sure, and some of my thoughts have moved around a bit, but what I wrote isn’t all that different from what I’d say about those albums today.

Reflektor will almost certainly be different. After repeated listens, I’m still not entirely sure what I think of it. I enjoy the album — at times, quite passionately — but it still feels like a moving, shifting entity to me. Its collision of familiarities, its arty pretentions, its lengthy tracks, its unwillingness to explain itself (and the winks it delivers when it seems to)… it all amounts to an album that, while far from a difficult listen, rejects easy understanding.

This might explain the wide array of reactions to Reflektor thus far. Though the reviews certainly skew positive, there’s been some rather prominent criticism of the record from both music writers and listeners (Paste has helpfully collected some of these in an article titled “Backlash Report: The 10 Most Scathing Reflektor Reviews”). More tellingly, I’ve found there to be little consensus on which of the album’s songs are actually good: nearly every track has been cited as a highlight and a demerit depending on which review you’re reading. (In contrast, it felt like pretty much everyone agreed that “Sprawl II” was pretty great on The Suburbs; similarly “Keep the Car Running” on Neon Bible.) Even the most basic elements (rhythm, melody) seem up for debate, as if the record is speaking in a slightly different language to each person depending on what they’re trying to find within its grooves.

This sort of reaction, all to an album called Reflektor: even by Arcade Fire standards, that’s pretty on the nose.

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“If you’re looking for hell, just try looking inside”

Here’s one reason why Reflektor seems so hard to pin down: it’s the most placeless album Arcade Fire have ever made.

Each of the band’s previous albums evoked a sense of location, either overtly (The Suburbs and Funeral’s “Neighborhood” suite) or with small descriptors (cities, cars and churches on Neon Bible). You could close your eyes and visualize the setting into which these characters were living these hyper-dramatic emotional moments. Even if the lyrics didn’t describe the setting to you, they provided you some tangible elements of these character’s lives to grasp onto. (And in the case of The Suburbs, a reflective album — no pun intended — there was a sense of temporality as well.)

I have no idea where Reflektor takes place (or when, for that matter). Because I’ve read interviews with the band that explain the origins of “Here Comes the Night Time,” I can picture it in Haiti, but I’m not sure I would have gotten there on my own. The title track wears its digital-age anxieties quite clearly, and “Awful Sound” references both a little town and a school, but in a storybook sort of fashion. Fully abandoning any Springsteenian balance between drama and detail, Butler’s lyrics on Reflektor are all metaphor and feeling, with minimal description.

I expect the lyrics on Reflektor to be a hang-up for some listeners, and I confess that I’m not sure how well they’ll wear over time.  They don’t read well, that’s for sure. The David Byrne-aping “Normal Person,” the on-the-nose “Joan of Arc,” the wordy and awkward “It’s Never Over” — they leave you feeling uncomfortable when you’re scanning the liner notes, and they’re awfully repetitive. But lyrics are meant to be sung, not read, and when propelled over top of the right backdrop (like on “Supersymmetry”) they can sometimes flirt with transcendence, inspiring a sort of elemental, rhythmic reaction.

But what exactly is Butler getting at with such opaque, detail-barren language? Perhaps the absence of tangible things speaks to the alienation that dominates Reflektor’s lyrics. Its characters are isolated entitles, both from specific love interests (“Reflektor,” the “Awful Sound / It’s Never Over” pairing) and from society more generally. There’s a real “us v them” motif that pops up across the album, often without much subtlety. An unspecified “they” is a seemingly fearsome threat in tracks like “Normal Person,” “Joan of Arc” and “We Exist” and, given the state of the album’s relationships as it closes with “Afterlife” and “Supersymmetry,” perhaps “they” emerge victorious. But I’m not sure how far I can follow Butler into battle against such a disembodied, blank-slate of an enemy.

The one reprieve from all this comes in “Here Comes the Night Time.” It’s one of the few times “they” are named (missionaries and preachers) and, in fact, “they” lose out, rendered irrelevant next to the musical parade marching through the streets. The song is a nice continuation of one of The Suburbs’ dominant motifs — the darkness as a place for discovery — and also feels like a summary statement of sorts for Arcade Fire in general: a celebratory soundtrack to an emotional experience delivered with religious fervor.

Only this time: they’re dancing.

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“Cause we do it like this”

Actually, let’s not oversell things on the dance front: the title track is, by a good margin, the closest Reflektor comes to being a “dance” album (ie. not that close at all). More to the point, Arcade Fire’s rhythm section has always relied heavily on new wave and disco patterns, from the four-on-the-floor of “Power Out” and “Rebellion” to the confident punch of “Sprawl II” and “City With No Children.” Now, though, the patterns more syncopated, backed by more keyboards and horns, and — this is key — even if the music isn’t all that dance-y, the band has embraced the language of dance music: slow builds, layered percussion and longer songs.

“The songs are all too long!” is an easy knock against an album in which nine out of 13 songs break the five-minute mark, but with a couple of exceptions (“We Exist” and maybe “Joan of Arc”) I don’t feel like any of them overstay their welcome. I’ve read many reviews that disagree with me, though, and my gut response to them at first was a reactionary “You rockers don’t get how dance language works!” sort of sentiment. But the more I think about it, I wonder if it’s less that Arcade Fire have made a huge shift with Reflektor and more than the band’s decisions on the album strip “Arcade Fire” down to a very polarizing essence.

Earlier this year Carl Wilson, writing for Slate, penned a scathing critique of The National and its particular brand of “crescendo rock.” (Full disclosure: I’m a big fan of both The National and Carl Wilson.) In defining crescendo rock, Wilson described its purveyors as, “guys who feel they’ve got something to say and demonstrate their significance by saying it over and over, getting louder and louder.” Alongside The National, he mentioned U2 and Coldplay in passing (as well as Polaris winners Godspeed You! Black Emperor) but he could just have well have been talking about Arcade Fire.

Much of the band’s material, to date, has succeeded by balancing its ability to graft a rather definitive escalating sound onto what were, at their core, folk songs. (Try breaking out anything from Funeral at your next campfire and see just how well they work there.) But by playing even more to the band’s new wave inspirations, The Suburbs saw the band begin to move towards songs that couldn’t really survive outside of their recorded/performed shape: “Rococo,” “We Used to Wait” and others are melodically simple, relying a great deal on the band’s driving escalation to become something compelling.

Several critics have argued that Reflektor contains probably the least-memorable set of melodies of any Arcade Fire album. I don’t disagree (though they’re better than some people are suggesting, and Neon Bible isn’t that far off in the non-memorable melody department, if you were to go back to it). The band has penned 13 songs that stay within a narrow range both melodically and vocally; instead, their momentum lies entirely in how they arrive and retreat, build and disassemble, element by element, sound by sound. “Crescendo” may not be the right word, in that it perhaps suggests more of a release than Arcade Fire are willing to offer this time around. But I don’t think I’m off base in suggesting that Reflektor is more interested in dynamics than it is songs.

Arcade Fire, a band that distinguished itself on Funeral with the power of its dynamic range, has now delivered an album that relies almost entirely on dynamics to succeed. As such, your enjoyment of the record probably depends a great deal on how compelling you think those dynamics are.

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“Can we just work it out? Scream and shout, till we work it out”

The more I listen to Reflektor, the more I find myself a bit underwhelmed by its first half. The between-song transitions feel like a flailing attempt to shove some semblance of continuity onto a rather disparate set of tracks. It contains the album’s two weakest songs, to my ears (the bouncy-but-aimless “You Already Know,” and “Joan of Arc,” which peaks at its raucous intro and never provides anything as compelling afterwards). And its tracklisting feels off as well. (It actually plays better on vinyl, which moves “We Exist” to the spot following “Here Comes the Night Time” for space’s sake but ends up with a much stronger flow.)

But Reflektor’s second record is something special. Starting with a reprise of “Here Comes the Night Time” that serves as a dark comedown from jubilation, the six-song suite is every bit as varied as the album’s first half but flows seamlessly from one inviting soundscape to another. It contains the album’s one sure-fire indie-pop smash (“Afterlife”) but also its best mood pieces, particularly the slow-burning “Porno.” It’s also where James Murphy’s presence is most pronounced, and not always where you’d expect: you can hear his influence in the tiny clacks and moody keyboards that linger through the glorious “Awful Sound,” or the slow synth withdrawal of album-closing “Supersymmetry.” (That many seem to credit Murphy with the “dance” elements of the album suggests they weren’t quite hearing the strengths of those LCD Soundsystem records.)

But I wonder to what degree my reaction to Reflektor is based in my own biases: in particular, my love of populist music that makes no apologies for trying to seem important at the same time. Funeral may have presented itself as an unassuming record, but go back to it today and it sounds like a band ready to take on the world — yet, also, one ready and willing to accept the world’s approval in return (no matter how weird they want to act about it). Arcade Fire’s music has always been decidedly in-between: between off-kilter and accessible; between modernity and nostalgia; between originality and influence; between small and fucking huge; now, between songs and dynamics. And this can be deeply unsatisfying if you’d prefer they pick one side of a particular debate or the other.

Me, I live for the tensions, the contradictions of popular music. I want my bands complicated — sometimes in their music, but often in their purpose, mission and in delivery. I admire albums that sound scattered rather than predictable, and that feel unsettled in their aims rather than entirely comfortable with themselves.

Reflektor is the most unsettled, uncomfortable record Arcade Fire has made to date, and yet I feel strangely satisfied in my unsettled, uncomfortable reaction to it.

Just a reflection of a reflection of a reflection…

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4 responses to “Unsettled grooves: Sorting through Arcade Fire’s broad, complicated Reflektor

  1. Who the fuck is arcade fire.

    Well written review. It’s really interesting how, like you mentioned, it seems like every review champions a different track as a standout. I find this album is taking a while to get a firm grasp on, it doesn’t have those key Arcade Fire moments to gravitate towards. It’s hard to wrap my brain around exactly what is happening. Or why. Or if I’ll care in 2 months. Or two years.

    I would like you to come back to the album on October 31, 2014 and see what you think then.

  2. Good stuff, Ryan. I think you’re saying a lot of things that I feel about the album but haven’t been able to articulate (at least not this cohesively).

    Perhaps I’m an unwitting fan of crescendo rock, but like briggins I find Reflektor doesn’t really have those few key tracks I’ve come to expect – the call to arms. “Wake Up” and “Intervention” are two of my favourite songs of all time and have a really overwhelming sound and rousing quality to them – “Rebellion”, “Half Light II”, “Sprawl II”, etc. have some of these qualities as well. That’s what I’m looking for in an Arcade Fire album. There this strange sort of a shapelessness and dislocation to Reflektor that isn’t anchored by a cohesive theme or one or two signature “this is it” tracks or moments. I feel like much of what they’re offering in Reflektor I can get elsewhere, and often better, yet other bands can’t give me what Arcade Fire in top form can give me.

  3. Pingback: On Modern Vampires of the City, and more of 2013′s best albums | McNutt Against the Music·

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