Arcade Fire makes a mess and has a blast on “Reflektor”

By Jackson Maxwell

When they first came to the public’s attention ten years ago, Arcade Fire was the most exciting band in the world. The songs “Funeral” and “Neon Bible,” highlights from their first two records, could rip the soul right out of the body. Songs like “Wake Up” and “No Cars Go” were so absurdly grandiose, optimistic, jubilant or tragic that the listener could feel raw emotion being dumped on them like the pig’s blood dumped on Carrie at the prom. Not since Radiohead had a band attracted such acclaim and dangerously high expectations so quickly. Arcade Fire seemed bulletproof, a band that could do no wrong.

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“The Suburbs,” the band’s third album, was a bit of a double-edged sword. It was a brilliant concept album about suburban deterioration and youth, but for the first time, the band seemed a bit distant. Rather than crafting his lyrics around pure, unbridled emotion, singer Win Butler seemed more like a narrator. Most songs were sung in the first person, but the stories he told seemed somehow more improbable than before. The band seemed to be taking itself and its music as seriously as its listeners did. For all of its greatness, “The Suburbs” had a sense of self-importance—it knew just how good it really was.

With all of this acclaim, Arcade Fire could have easily drowned in a sense of grandiosity on “Reflektor,” released on Oct. 29 – and at first, with all the cagey PR that led up to the album, it seemed like they had. Instead, the two-disc set seems to be the expression of a new, more lighthearted Arcade Fire. The band has been performing small shows as “The Reflektors,” demanding that its entire audience come in either costume or formal wear. “Reflektor” runs like Mardi Gras. It is messy, wild, bombastic and often a bit self-indulgent. But it is an absolute blast.

Produced by LCD Soundsystem mastermind James Murphy, “Reflektor” focuses much more of the band’s sound on rhythm. Inspired by the music of co-lead singer Régine Chassagne’s native Haiti, the songs here are more rhythmically diverse than anything the band has previously released. More than anything, “Reflektor” is absolutely and totally fearless. Arcade Fire takes a lot of chances over the album’s 85-minute running length, executed with mixed success, but the band members take them all. They look everywhere to set down their anchor but never panic if they can’t find solid ground.

The title track and album opener is one of the disc’s finest moments. Perfectly combining Butler’s fantastical lyricism with the band’s new dance-indebted sensibility, Arcade Fire crafts a seven-and-a-half minute epic. Just when the song starts getting repetitive, David Bowie throws in a few words, fueling the song enough to reach its conclusion. “We Exist” and “Flashbulb Eyes” are hazy, solid rockers that find Butler flirting with his usual philosophical questions. “Here Comes the Night Time” is another treat. After opening with frenzied percussive rhythms, it settles effortlessly into a Caribbean-type groove. The band appropriates Haitian music and actually does it justice. Rather than sounding like a rock band clumsily attempting a beachy vibe, “Here Comes the Night Time” is authentically loose, messy and fun.

Things get a bit bogged down by the second half of the album’s first disc. The verses of “Normal Person” aren’t all that special, and the chorus is a mess of hard rock that fails to convince. “You Already Know” opens and closes with former BBC talk show host Jonathan Ross introducing the band and announcing their departure from the “stage.” It may be cheeky, but in context it’s a little self-serving and ridiculous, as the song doesn’t deserve the fanfare. “Joan of Arc” is also overblown and unmemorable, providing a sub-par conclusion to the first disc.

Things pick up in the second disc, however. After a reprise to “Here Comes the Night Time” comes “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice).” Although the song’s first half is a bit slow, Butler and Chassagne deliver some beautiful hooks once it picks up. “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)” is an upbeat song that again shows off the band’s knack for pulling off a Haitian influence. Although the tense electro groove of “Porno” falters, the wonderfully up-tempo “Afterlife” and the gorgeously understated “Supersymmetry” close the album on its peak.

On “Reflektor,” Arcade Fire has no idea which road to take, but we benefit from the band losing the map. It’s clearly in the process of reinventing itself, and no one can know what it will become in the end. But for now, “Reflektor” is the best indicator. While it may not have a stirring, fists-in-the-air anthem like their earlier records, “Reflektor” is still a great listen. It doesn’t compromise, it displays no fear or inhibition and it shows that Arcade Fire is inviting listeners to live in the moment and enjoy themselves while they’re at it.

Jackson Maxwell can be reached at [email protected]