Review Summary: This is the adjuuuuuuuuuuustment
When Arcade Fire arrived in 2004, one immediately got the sense that they were different. Even as the playful sprinkle of piano frolicked their debut album, Funeral, into existence, it danced against the ominous backdrop of a thudding stomp of keys. If there was anything light-hearted here, anything simply pleasant, it was likely to be enveloped by the sober gravitas that triggered such lines as ‘Time keeps creeping through the neighbourhood / Killing old folks, waking babies, just like we knew it would.’ It’s remarkable that with lines as wholeheartedly serious as this one, they were ever taken seriously at all.
Yet they were quickly appreciated by the masses, one of whom-discovering how it feels to be a member of a multitude-was David Bowie. And if Bowie likes the band, what sort of feeble arguments could us mere peasants ever employ to combat his superior taste? And it’s exactly this sort of homogeneous subservience to cultural protocol that Win Butler & Co. have fought against-armed only with their irregular instruments-for almost a decade. After all, 2010’s The Suburbs was ostensibly an album reflecting on the formulaic regularity of childhood suburbia and quotidian middle-class life as an adult. They clearly identify as ‘different,’ and want you to be too.
With this in mind, it shouldn’t come as too great a surprise that Arcade Fire have finally tinkered with their own formula. Where do you go when you’ve so comprehensively established yourself apart from the crowd that crowds of people applaud your Grammy win? When Butler sang ‘I guess we’ll just have to adjust,’ on Wake Up all those years ago, he foreshadowed the route that Reflektor would take. They’ve simplified in some areas, loosened up in others, and adopted an attitude that sometimes directly addresses and questions rather than simply reflecting and meditating.
Win Butler has never been the most figurative or poetic of lyricists, but here he feels content to fill the bulk of most songs with far more repetition than in the past. The story has given way to an unyielding stream of ideas, doggedly delivered with insistence. Arcade Fire have always sounded vehement, but the record’s lyrics have been written emphatically, as if they’ve recognised they’re up to their fourth album but can still see some people up the back that aren’t listening. You Already Know is the most obvious example of this, claiming people understand yet treating the listener like a juvenile child that almost needs to be shouted at: ‘Please stop wondering why you feel so bad / When you already know.’ It’s sung amid a surge of delightful, jiving guitar-work that almost espouses the bliss of ignorance, endorsing a listen that doesn’t entirely consider its implications.
Butler’s wife and fellow band member, Régine Chassagne, has said in the past that it was his serious sense of focus to which she was initially attracted, and this characteristic is still evident on Reflektor. So too is one of their trademark tempo shifts, turning the sublime Here Comes The Night Time into a rollicking, chaotic adventure. Also, the clear superiority of the penultimate song, Afterlife, continues their tradition of placing every album’s top track in that slot. After all this time, on Afterlife Butler’s still wondering ‘Where do we go?’ and ‘Can we work it out?’ without offering an answer. And like on The Suburbs, Reflektor’s opening, titular track is the perfect introduction, clearly announcing intention and style. His high school English teacher must be so proud. And for the group of fans inevitably left feeling personally insulted by the new direction, Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice) is a mellower number that could fit alongside their earlier material; though you would never follow in the steps of Hades and separate it from its partner, It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus), which has just enough shimmering synth to necessitate its place here.
Reflektor’s retro disco aesthetic is an obvious appendage, but one sign of an excellent band is that an artistic direction doesn’t consume the art, and Arcade Fire are such a group. They’ve said they wanted to make an album to dance to-and they succeed-yet their themes are anything but appropriate. On Porno, Butler sings ‘Little boys with their porno / Oh I know they hurt you so.’ That’s sure to make anyone stop dancing mid-thrust. But its sinister groove is so beguiling that it wouldn’t stop them for long. The album is brimming with these enchanting rhythms that almost justify its running time, elongated by numerous verse repeats and instrumental jams. Though endowed with a greater degree of spatial liberty than their past work, one gets the feeling that it has been carefully considered, like a dictator allocating slightly improved rights to a minority. But this isn’t a fault, as the strength of Arcade Fire has always been their propensity to think about things deeply, and even a somewhat punk song, Joan Of Arc, still feels intellectually rich.
Greek mythology suggests Orpheus, a renowned musician, descended to the underworld to perform the impossible task of charming Hades into agreeing to return his recently deceased lover, Eurydice. The tragedy is that Hades did so with the proviso that, during their ascent to the surface, Orpheus couldn’t glance behind him to ensure Eurydice was with him. At the last moment, he faltered and turned around, and his lover was snatched from his grasp once more. It’s not a surprising narrative to be examined on the new record, given this is a band that have spent the last decade publically pondering life and death. On an album that flickers between consideration and indifference, Arcade Fire might occasionally look back, but they’ll always keep moving forward.