Are Arcade Fire a band of diminishing returns or a group that nobly scarified perfection to achieve a broader and more scathing pop vision? In our collective quest to find a narrative arc for each and every band, Arcade Fire have become the subject of some dispute. They are either locked in a creative tailspin or they continue to release peerless albums. The truth is never that simplistic. Artistic careers do not simply adhere to bell curve graph: they zig and zag, peak and trough, frenetically reaching out in a host of tantalizing half-realized directions. The question is not: Arcade Fire, overrated/underrated? But, Arcade Fire: where do they go from here?
Fervent supporters and avid detractors are unlikely to agree on much when it comes to Montreal’s arena-conquering, Grammy-snatching, seven-piece; but everyone, the band included, seemed to realize that The Suburbs represented a definitive end point. Be it bloated or brilliant, one vision of Arcade Fire had run its course and it was time for a change of pace. With evolution (if not an outright revolution) in mind, Win Butler and Regine Chessagne turned to hipster deity, and LCD Soundsystem mastermind, James Murphy for assistance. His impact is immediately apparent.
Win Butler sneeringly asks “Do you like rock’n’roll music? Because I don’t know if I do” on “Normal Person”, one of many distinctly teenage strops at his audience and his art form’s expense, but the more pressing question proves to be: do Arcade Fire understand dance music? It’s tempting to picture James Murphy walking into the studio, staring at the angsty ensemble in front of him, and glumly wondering if these guys ever shake off that face-like-a-slapped-arse and get down.
Win and Regine certainly have in the past. “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” captured the exhilaration of breaking the 9-to-5 shackles and giving your all to the city lights, while “The Suburbs” creakily waltzed to the tune of a mid life crisis. Reflektor bypasses these tentative yearnings and definitely slides onto the glittering dance floor. The title track is supercharged with a burbling Stevie Wonder groove, which underpins a clattering cavalcade of scything horns, haywire electronics, and instinctual pitter-patter percussion. “We Exist” might lack “Reflektor’s” scathing internet age satire, but it mixes soft sweeping bitterness with a seductive “Like A Virgin” walking groove. The blunt force simplicity of Win’s sentiment and the track’s eerie atmospheric chills might seem at odds with this new found desire to cut loose, but Arcade Fire make all the right concessions. Softly whispering their best na na nas and even including a cheeky eastern sounding solo.
The embrace of dance’s slow-burn (build-and-release) strictures has exacerbated Arcade Fire’s already worrying tendency to let a track meander (on and on and on). Reflektor is a collection of long songs and, on occasion, Arcade Fire lose sight of balance between tease and crescendo. The largely delightful “Here Comes The Night Time” offers a slow plinky-plonky strip tease, but when the glorious release comes, it’s all over rather too quickly. Well it is Arcade Fire’s first time (making this sort of music).
“Normal Person”, which embraces post-punk’s distinctly white and rhythmless vision of dance music, is far more exhilarating. Win bitterly lets his disdain for a judgmental and cruel society build for all of two minutes before unleashing the dogs of war. The post-recession/Twitter-mad world has been crying out for a defiant battle cry, and Win Butler might just have delivered it with the spittle spraying refrain of “If that’s what’s normal now, I don’t wanna know!”
Unfortunately, “Normal Person” is rare example of Win Butler perfectly reflecting the bitterness of the society that surrounds him. Elsewhere, he proves either too ham-fisted or too self-involved, and simply gets in his own way. “Flashbulb Eyes” is a bold mix of blares, scratches and chimes that sit arrestingly in the foreground. Win moans and groans outlining the most tedious of conceits – isn’t it terrible being a rockstar, aren’t regular people awful, blah blah blah – obscuring a daring concoction of noises and squeaks that surround him. A little less vocal grandstanding and a touch more of that earth shattering horn section and “Flashbulb Eyes” would really mean business.
The meticulously constructed arrangements routinely prove more evocative and celebratory than anything either Win or Regine’s notepads can muster. “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)” has the delicious ambient drift of Low period Eno, but the vocals feel entirely disconnected. They are soon reconciled with the strident indie funk of “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)”, which threatens to be an illusive camp-stomper of a track, but begins to peter out after the fist pumping blurt: “You say it’s not me it’s you”.
The second half of Reflektor is incredibly frustrating. The band never fail outright (in fact the music is routinely stunning), but they can’t quite pull it all together. “Porno” has a glacial-synthetic-hook ready to chill packed arenas, but over six-minutes its impact is dulled and diminished by a verse that, while honest, is far from life changing. “Afterlife” on the other hand feels underdeveloped. Thankfully, hearing a hook driven potential hit after a handful of leaden tracks is equivalent to shedding a great hulking weight. At last there is room to breathe, space to shake those hips, and a chance for everyone to reach for the sky and sing-along.
There are so many tantalizing teases, so many nearly-but-not-quite there breakthroughs, and so much brilliance in isolation that, when “Joan Of Arc” arrives mid-album, listener’s won’t know whether to exhale or punch the air. It might be bruising, wounded, and sung with its eyes glued to the floor, but my God it stomps, rattles and rolls. Using five minutes to their fullest, Arcade Fire dive headlong into a series of demented detours culminating in the ridiculously endearing French, Regine sung, break. It’s strange, it’s groovy, and it all builds to that tub thumping pre-chorus: “And if you shoot, you better hit your mark”.
Arcade Fire let it all hang out on Reflektor. They prove that they can make brilliant ear bending music and rip the Internet age a new one at the same time. But for every devastatingly insightful one liner (“We’re so connected but are we really friends”), there’s an onslaught of rock and roll hubris (sneering jabs and insecure outbursts). The music is equally scatter shot. Almost every beat of this album sounds brilliant and endlessly intriguing on its own terms, but the arrangements struggle to hang together. And even when they do, Arcade Fire often allow the momentum to fritter away.
Still, for all its faults and for all the band’s struggles, this is the album that Arcade Fire needed to make. It’s a startling change of course that takes the band’s overused tropes and turns them on their head. Refletkor is daring. The compositions are wild. The genre blends are scintillating and Win’s unending bombardment of bile is addictively hypocritical. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the kind of glorious mess of an album that makes music great.
Reflektor continues in the proud tradition of the 1970s by joining an illustrious list of the wildly self-involved and utterly hair-brained double albums. Say hello to Tusk 2013. Furiously arguing whether Refletkor represents a new standard in artistic brilliance or pretentious bollocks will be the half the fun. Follow David Hayter on Twitter @Daveportivo