by James Embrey
Since the late 1990s, indie rock has surged in popularity. It has been progressively pushed more and more into the mainstream airwaves, while still managing to avoid oversaturation. It’s like that kid you knew in school who was just there all the time, in lots of places and respected amongst his or her peers, but never overly popular or talked about: somehow remaining in the shadow of the bigger scene.
In the early 2000s, one of the leading forces in this indie surge was Canadian-septet Arcade Fire. The group first garnered critical acclaim and earned their positive reputation upon the release of their 2004 debut LP, Funeral. With its rich blend of charismatic flair and somber moodiness, the album took many critics and indie rock fans by pleasant surprise, and ended up topping many year-end and decade-end Best Albums lists.
Since then, one may safely say the band has been traversing down a path similar to that of Radiohead’s: progressively gravitating toward more experimental music. That’s not to say the band has reached the point of Kid A- or Amnesiac- level obscurity (that is yet to be seen), but each new album seems to hint more and more at that, while still managing to retain the bands distinct indie/alternative rock sound.
With the band’s latest release, Reflektor, Arcade Fire continues down this path of sonic experimentation. It picks up where they left off in 2010’s The Suburbs, and further broadens the range of musical textures they choose to utilize, clearly attempting to create a more diverse sound overall. The album is also a double-album—that is, a two-disc set. With this knowledge, we can infer that Arcade Fire is also attempting to pace the album’s listening experience better. In having two separate discs, the listener has more breathing room to absorb all the album has to offer; it gives us the chance to take a break between sets and appreciate the songs on each set more. This is in sharp contrast to The Suburbs’ massive sixteen-track list on a single album, which dragged the listening experience out and risked overwhelming its audience.
The title track, Reflektor, tosses us into a heap of different sounds, ranging from pianos to saxophones to various string instruments, even mixing in synthesizers and voice-effects, all amidst lyrics in which the singer is crying out as an individual desperately seeking a connection with others. Together, these pack an oddly cohesive, yet also frenetic whallop. Then, there are other tracks such as We Exist and Flashbulb Eyes, which are more traditionally structured rock songs that hearken back to the New Wave sound of the 1980s. However, one of the album’s best tracks is easily Normal Person. This track picks apart the supposed virtues of “normalcy,” and compares this to the world in which we currently live, where different and unique groups regularly face negative stereotypes, prejudice, discrimination, and segregation.
The first album half closes with Joan of Arc, which details the story of a man’s unrequited love for and idealization of a girl who he thinks of as a Joan-of-Arc-esque figure. The female of the story, however, does not see herself in the same way, and suggests that his perception of her nature may just be a reflection of his own helplessness and dire need for inspiration. It is tracks like this, scattered throughout the album, which use history and myth as metaphors and allegories to display and relate to personal moments within the band members’ careers, and to the whole of society and the material world. It reflects on the world we are in, and the lives we all lead as a result of its influence on us.
On the second disc of the album, however, the band really takes a leap of faith. It is there where they showcase a more atmospheric and concept-driven style. Here Comes the Night Time II opens the second set of songs by serving as an intro to the second half, and foreshadowing the mood we can expect from the remainder of the album. It bleeds into Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice), which, in turn, bleeds into It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus). These two songs tell a story of romance and tragedy, loosely based off the Greek mythology of Eurydice and Orpheus— one of the author’s personal favorite sections of the album, overall, it must be said. The two tracks complement each other in a profound way, both lyrically and musically, as Win Butler’s crooning Orpheus character is harmoniously balanced out by Regine Chassagne’s ethereal Eurydice. Each of the duo’s voices richly emphasize the other’s, and seem to dance together harmoniously over a sea of musically atmospheric bliss. Through the crescendos and decrescendos of synthesized sounds and string instruments, and through the ambience of the track held together by electronic drum beats, Arcade Fire uses this melancholy romance to display just how deeply love can touch us, even after death, and puts on display this so-close-yet-so-far type of affair.
Following up is the track Porno. It opens with a funky style of guitar amidst an eerie barrage of moaning and sighing, accompanied by Win Butler’s somewhat disturbing lyrics which evoke images of a sinister stalker. The song effectively puts into perspective the lustful nature of man, creating a dark and haunting atmosphere, as though one were diving straight into the sexually-obsessed mind of Win Butler’s character. The truly scary part of the song is, he feels as though there’s nothing wrong with what he’s doing in constantly following her and being around her. The character gets so creepily lost in his sexual obsessions with her that “the line is lost;” he loses his sense of humanity altogether, and becomes somewhat of an animal in going after her. The lyrics claim that “love is a disease,” as is shown in the fact that the stalker’s emotions have infected him in such a corrupting way that he actually thinks what he feels is a deep, profound love, as opposed to the savage, barbaric lust it truly is.
Closing the second half of the album is a unique track, originally produced for the movie Her, titled Supersymmetry. This eleven-minute composition ties together the album’s themes of the introspection of our own characters, and the extrospection and observation of others and society at large. It also exhibits further experimentation on the band’s part: the first half plays with instrumentation and lyrics before fading out briefly, and then fading back into play the music in reverse, sans vocals.
Overall, the trademark Arcade Fire sound is still there, but with a distinct facelift. Ex-LCD Soundsystem mastermind James Murphy is behind the album’s production, though he never overtly makes his presence felt. Though it is clear he has pushed them to make subtle steps toward a more experimental sound, while also bolstering the band’s trademark style.
Reflektor is definitely a respectable album, and has some remarkable strong points. However, it is not perfect by any means. It suffers from somewhat odd pacing, and the first and second halves of the album contrast in a slightly jarring fashion; this gives it a slightly imbalanced, hit-or-miss feel. Yet despite this, the album displays ingenuity and solid craftsmanship, quite an accomplishment for Arcade Fire, who already have three critically-acclaimed albums under their belt. It moves in bold new musical directions, while holding on to the edge which first brought them into the spotlight.