Even after a great number of listens, it lacks force and is extremely difficult to latch onto.
Arcade Fire – Reflektor
Years down the line, critics and listeners alike might look back on 2013 as the year of mysterious, ridiculous pre-release promotion. Few eras have some of the biggest acts of the time teased their new music so extensively and tortuously. Other equally respected artists have proven such strategies unnecessary: Radiohead’s most recent two albums were announced no more than ten days before their release, yet both of them received critical acclaim, and sold just as well as any non-major label album might be expected to in the digital age.
In light of Radiohead’s success, it’s difficult to pinpoint why Arcade Fire chose to unveil their fourth album, Reflektor, via a sprawling, interminable promotion campaign. While it’s true that an excellent, potent album might absolve any musician of the tomfoolery that excessive marketing requires, Reflektor falls short of such descriptions. Coming from a band that previously released three unprecedentedly powerful, emotionally overwhelming albums, Reflektor feels a bit stale. Its lack of focus suggests that the band’s massive pre-release stunts may have been an effort to beef up an album whose creators have chosen to do nothing about its numerous flaws, of which they may be well aware before release.
Reflektor indulges in fantasy and pretense, often coming off forced and indefensible. Unlike past albums Funeral and Neon Bible, few moments on Reflektor connect to each other thematically or musically. Although this description also applies musically to The Suburbs, that album succeeded since its thematic consistency endowed the music with authenticity, and showed that Arcade Fire can experiment without losing touch emotionally. On Reflektor, the band still tries on new musical costumes, yet their motivation seems ungenuine.
However, despite the myriad incongruities Arcade Fire presents with Reflektor, the group’s innate ability to write beautiful, heart-wrenching songs prevails surprisingly often. The album’s title tracks kicks things off brilliantly, ascending from a blend of disco and tropical percussion into a brooding, sweeping array of pianos, strings, and repeated lyrics; it’s actually one of the best songs the band has ever written, and a contender for song of the year. “We Exist” thereafter continues the new wave theme with a “Billie Jean” bassline and an arena-sized gaze. “Flashbulb Eyes” follows, and marks the first betrayal of the expected disco/new wave motif; luckily, the album rebounds quickly with the ebullient, shape-shifting “Here Comes the Night Time.”
Fluctuations in sound and resonance plague Reflektor, as evidenced by its first four tracks. The pummeling, mighty “Joan of Arc” is sandwiched between the inane “You Already Know” and the empty “Here Comes the Night Time II”. Furthermore, two of the album’s least effective tunes, “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)” and “Supersymmetry”, bookend the three songs that comprise its best stretch. Even throughout this musical peak, though, cohesion remains distant. “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)” makes an arena masterpiece out of Chromatics-style riffing and contemplation, but follows that with something different entirely: the haunting bounce of “Porno”, one of few moments to even somewhat follow the path suggested by Reflektor’s first two tracks. Finishing off this three-track high point is album highlight “Afterlife”, which matches the title track in its greatness. Its structure screams classic Arcade Fire: chilling oohs and aahs guide the intro into a smooth verse, which slides into a gripping, forceful chorus; after a return to a similar verse, the second chorus elevates the catharsis of the first to a nearly unbearable level.
It’s hard to understand how Arcade Fire can release an album that contains both “Afterlife,” a thrilling, afflicting gem, and “Normal Person,” easily the worst song in the band’s catalog to date. The latter track represents many flaws that persist throughout the album. Lyrically, it falls flat on its face: “Is anything as strange as a normal person?/Is anyone as cruel as a normal person?” lead vocalist Win Butler asks, later following with, “I think I’m cool enough/but am I cruel enough/Am I cruel enough/for you?” Indeed, this is no “Neighborhood #1” (even with no context, “I’ll dig a tunnel/From my window to yours” is devastatingly beautiful); nostalgia and human passion is replaced by vapid overgeneralization. Yes, even the words sung here feel incorrect, as they do in many places throughout the album: see the banal, elementary lyrics of “You Already Know” for proof.
If “Normal Person” sounded good, it might feel somewhat easier to accept. But, whereas the thoroughly wonderful music of songs like “We Exist” and “Porno” negate the deleterious effects of their shoddy poetry, the mocking, insincere, painfully piercing guitar squeals that line the chorus of “Normal Person” merely amplify its failure. “Supersymmetry” suffers a similar fate, its minimalist sparkle unable to reconcile its confusing, seemingly meaningless sentiments. Likewise, the vague, uncreative mantras of “Here Comes the Night Time II” bear as little weight as do its sounds.
Actually, weightlessness is all over Reflektor. Even after a great number of listens, it lacks force and is extremely difficult to latch onto. Indeed, at its worst, Reflektor is simply egregious, a crashing disappointment from a band that had previously provided only the purest of music. At its best, though, it shows that Arcade Fire is still very much capable of creating relatable, affecting, powerful music, even when they shoot too high.