Review Summary: A smugly ambitious, hour-plus blockbuster experience of slick grooves and toe-tapping indifference.
Of the bands that have attained "mainstream indie" status – The National, Bon Iver, Passion Pit, Phoenix etc. – Arcade Fire have reached the blandest incarnation of their breakthrough selves. Any heartfelt emotion and daring composition found in Funeral
is missing from this decade's Arcade Fire, an observation solidified by the remarkably neutered Reflektor
. The band’s ascendancy to Global Phenomenon has come with the desire to make music that can be played anywhere and enjoyed by everyone. They might have achieved that here: it’s hard to imagine a public setting that couldn't be soundtracked by these banal rhythms, or a social gathering ill-fit for such pointless lyricism. In streamlining their sound to the universal, Arcade Fire have created the most yawn-inducing major release of the year.
is an eye-roller of a record, a smugly ambitious, hour-plus blockbuster experience of slick grooves and toe-tapping indifference. It's so plainly inoffensive that it flips that term to its antonym, made more infuriating by the crowd-pleasing "risks" and the critic-baiting "sonic variety." The game of deception they play is setting up a bunch of flashy distractions – "fake band" live performances, track lengths pushing 12 minutes, exotic Haitian instruments – to spruce up their wallpaper songwriting. Here's the gist of just about any song on Reflektor
: a steady drum beat steers a groovy bassline and hook-laden guitars as James Murphy inserts 80's synth shimmers and a Haitain instrumentalist plays something ethnomusical and Win Bulter yelps about the night time/reflektors/death/fire/knowing/whatever. Skip to any point in the Youtube stream and you'll catch this template in action. Or play through the 85 minutes until you itch for an album that actually surprises.
It’s convenient that Reflektor
is front-loaded, by which I mean that the best song is the opening track. "Reflektor" develops brilliantly: head-bobbing verses keep motion in spite of hairpin turn choruses, amounting to unpredictable travel through the post-disco rock voyage. The sentimental piano line leading the bridge brings true uplift, diffusing into an airy and liberated outro. It's a brisk seven minutes of tight and engaging construction; too bad the band isn't capable of upholding that standard over the lengthy runtime. "We Exist" follows and is strikingly timid. The slinky, dated bassline could have been lifted from a VHS porno; the steady drum beat seems to have no intent other than to simply exist. At least the space synths Murphy throws in add quirk to an otherwise meager track. "Flashbulb Eyes" doesn't fare any better, led by a xylophone twerking a silly melody and some reggae cultural appropriation. At this point I’m already tuning out the bloated murk that is Reflektor
, in which cool ideas appear intermittently only to get lost in a sea of tedium.
The second disk offers pleasant tweaks to this lengthy tour, namely a more expansive, relaxed take on the Arcade Fire sound. Imagine "Wake Up" diffused into a free-form jam, the heart-swelling strings and group chants manifested with atmospheric intent. This self-effacement sort of corrects the background drift of the music; it falls into the subconscious with clear intent, rather than boredom leaving the mind to drift elsewhere. The production on some tracks (particularly "Afterlife") veers too close to LCD Soundsystem's Sound of Silver
, but Arcade Fire manage to retain their identity amidst the glimmering synth play. Murphy's background is best showcased on the closer: "Supersymmetry" is great, arena rock turned cosmic through orbiting synths and a hypnotic dissolution into space. It’s an accomplished track that matches the focus of "Reflektor," but after 66 minutes, it doesn't carry enough strength to elevate this release.
Arcade Fire are vying for the Rock Hall of Fame with Reflektor
, presenting a "beast" of a record that self-congratulates as often as it avoids offense at every turn. Its personality is defined through the impersonal, the detachment of a rock act driven by hubris rather than the need to intimately connect with its listeners. Underneath the flashy effects, the accolade-baiting, the self-indulgence, there's no actual soul to this record. That might not faze you, but for a band once praised for their heartfelt and empathetic music, that certainly fazes me.