As pop graduates, Arcade Fire addresses their polarizing fame, their need for a real connection, and the modern world’s obsession with its means that leaves us sitting at home alone and staring at a screen.
Reflektor addresses the simulacra/simulacrum of popular music, images, technology, and reality, shining a light on the soul-robbing injustice of capitalist greed and Facebook rubbernecking. It’s also a travelogue and diary from the couple at its center, a cycle of songs dedicated to the desperation of only just barely being able to scratch the surface of the things and people you love.
The title track is one of the best disco songs in a year top-loaded with them. “Reflektor” lays out most of the theme of the album and provides a meta-message about the futility of “getting in,” whether it’s meant in a pop context or the frustrating way we can form a whole picture of a person without touching or even knowing them. “We’re connected, but are we really friends?” queries songwriter Win Butler. To drive home the desperation, as he faces one side of the pop music funhouse mirror, David Bowie peers back (in stunning background vocalist form). James Murphy’s production is immediately apparent, and it’s a titanic groove, all while not diluting Arcade Fire’s penchant for making overbearingly poignant music.
“We Don’t Exist” makes a pointed statement about their insider/outsider status as crossover artists. “Daddy, tell me why they treat me like this? / Cuz we do it like thissssss,” Butler hisses. No one looks at them anymore; they aren’t approached by strangers, they’re an island.
“Flashbulb Eyes” dares to ask “what if a camera really do take your soul?” Its toy-reggae step isn’t many places removed from David Byrne or Damon Albarn’s. Without anything to hide, would you have anything to be afraid of? Is this the freedom we were promised when adopting the Internet into our lives? And what’s the alternative? “Here Comes The Night” answers that, as well as cluing in the listener to all this talk of transcendence that Butler and his wife (co-songwriter/ vocalist Regine Chassagne) received when they visited Haiti between albums. The disparity created at the intersection of different socioeconomic worlds is exacerbated by missionaries who don’t know how to help. They’d destroy and suppress indigenous culture in the name of Progress and Christianity. But (to nick from Ray Charles) “the night time is the right time.” “Night” is a delirious, joyous track, celebrating a people who celebrate without having what many would see as conventional reasons, further putting into perspective the malaise that’s included standard with most tablet devices.
“Do you like rock’n’roll music? Cuz I don’t know if I do…,” is how Butler cheekily opens “Normal People,” a song about the precarious boundary surrounding the territory of acceptability. On the surface it scans as teen angst, but in a world where globalization and info-fascist world powers are emerging, are such Orwellian concerns far fetched? Tellingly, it kicks off a three song centerpiece of the most traditionally “rock” songs on the album, albeit songs in mutant shapes.
“You Already Know” opens with a Top of The Pops-esque introduction (including an actual sample from their appearance on Jonathan Ross’s program) that is the harbinger for the most saccharine plastic pop song this side of Tiger Mountain. It’s a song in full “Love Cats” jangle-pop mode, all about fleeting moments and self-deception. The juxtaposition of somewhat facetious musical choices and Arcade Fire’s typically thorough exploration of earnestness, passion, and true emotional catharsis is something that makes sense at this point in their trajectory, on this side of so many polarizing accolades.
Despite how oddly prefab their primary palette is this time around, they still repeatedly transcend effortlessly. “Joan of Arc” struts like T. Rex (or it’s newer cousin, Kanye’s ferocious “Black Skinhead,” or it’s perfect mash-up partner, Tame Impala’s “Elephant”), but not without leaving behind its message of blind love, admiration, and the curse of prescience. Heady stuff, of course, but there aren’t many bands as capable of wielding such lofty themes with confidently nonchalant tunes. It’s a challenge Arcade Fire has risen to through four albums and with a sound that had only evolved incrementally up until this point.
Structured as a double album, complete with intermission, Reflektor’s second side opens with a dreamy reprise of “Here Comes The Night,” before shimmying off into its primarily funkier second half. “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)” leaps from the Rolling Stones’ languid lope to a sound a little more solemn and back; “Its Never Over (Oh Orpheus)” answers with a funk approaching that of the purple one Himself. References to Chassagne and Butler’s real-life partnership abound, though their relationship is just as tied to their music as their music is tied to the internet as the internet is to pop culture, everything in relation to an actual reality hazy at best– elusive, shifting, elastic. “Its Never Over” is suitably amorphous, drifting from hazy sweetness back into a jelly-leg jam with what’s probably the best single hook on the entire album.
“Porno” is a domestic promise to differentiate between the images on a screen and the real fuckin’ deal. In other words, it’s baby-makin music for the stable household, sexy, but responsible. Don Jon could learn a thing or two from Win Butler on how to treat a lady, but there’s something just beneath of the breakdown between our info-laden techno-reality and how unsatisfactorily this represents the lives we lead, even as we dive further into that domain. As porno is to sex, so our profiles are to us.
“Afterlife” sees Butler finally trying on the Big Suit, using the Talking Heads swagger as a vehicle to address patience in the face of unknowable quantities. What’s after the end? Can “we” get it together, scrape up the pieces, and move on? Is there anywhere to go from here?
Closer “Supersymmetry” is a hazy comedown of a song that ties tiny bows around the themes of fake vs. real and real vs. hyper-real. “I know you’re living in my mind/ It’s not the same as being alive.” Reflektor is simultaneously as dense and perplexing as it is open-hearted and over-honest, serving as another example of its own themes, becoming the very impenetrable bubble it shines a light on. There is much to glean from this album. If you do solve the riddle, what do you learn? A Cracker Jack telescope is just a toy, and through it you can only see a distortion.
The experience of being a globe-trotting, award-winning, indie-darling, world-conquering Big Deal Band is something many will never understand. The ways our modern lifestyles affect us are only beginning to show us our need to understand it. But the personal drama of the household is a near-universal. Reflektor is all three, and none. It’s also an album. But an album can be digital, vinyl, or just the concept of the album.
The “hidden track” reprises the entire album, a hazy soundtrack jumping the gun on anything Nicolas Jaar might have taken his shot at. In the end, it dumps us back off at the opening bells of “Reflektor”, the album becoming a mobius strip that leads us back to square one.
Josh Beech used to hang out with the hobos behind the strip club. Now he writes articles for Internet website magazines. He’s always known how to read. You can follow him on twitter @joshbeechyall and hear all of his opinions about the latest celebrity gossip.