Arcade Fire: Reflektor
“Uh-oh…” were the exact words out of my mouth when I saw Arcade Fire premier some songs from their new album, Reflektor, on Saturday Night Live and their half-hour music special last month. For the first time ever, one of my all-time favorite bands sounded boring and underwhelming. I momentarily excused the band, hoping that maybe it was just that the songs didn’t sound as good live as they would sound recorded. However, it genuinely pains me to say that after listening to Reflektor from start to finish repeatedly for nearly a week now, I still stand by my initial reaction: some of this music is really dull.
With the release of their first full-length album, Funeral, in 2004, Arcade Fire gave us a ridiculously strong collection of songs. They were intense and dark (their debut album was called Funeral for god’s sake and featured a song that translated to “A Year Without Light”). There was yelling and screaming and driving guitars. There were slower songs and moments of relief, but there always remained that sense of urgency and intensity that ripped you out of your seat and forced you to listen. With their second album, Neon Bible, much of this intensity remained and the band expanded a bit to include varying musical styles. The Suburbs, which won the 2010 Album of the Year Grammy award, featured a collection of songs that were, yet again, highly original and individualistic. There was never the sense of “heard one song, heard them all.”
Then, after some interesting promotion (last-minute shows in random warehouses, mysterious “Reflector” graffiti throughout certain cities, and a half-hour special after SNL, directed by Roman Coppola), Reflektor was released.
After analyzing the album a bit, I would put the tracks into three groups: songs that are good (“Joan of Arc,” “Reflektor”), songs that are growing on me (“Supersymmetry”), and songs that are really dull (“We Exist”).
“Here Comes the Night Time” was the first track on the album to really grab me. The song was “very much influenced by when the sun is just starting to go down in Port au Prince,” explained frontman Win Butler in a recent interview with Rolling Stone magazine, referring to the various trips he’s taken to Haiti. (His wife/bandmate Regine Chasssagne’s family emigrated to Canada from Haiti before she was born.) He continues, explaining how inspirational it was “going to Carnival for the first time and seeing rara music, which is a kind of street music with all of these horns and African percussion.”
These influences really shine through and make a fun dance track. The song, which Butler says he wrote over the course of several years, is interesting, tightly composed and provides a sense of release for the listener.
“Joan of Arc,” another winning track on the album, has a punk vibe and a catchy pop chorus that is perfected with Chassagne’s endearing backup vocals. “Reflektor” as well, has its strong points. The 7 ½-minute track not only sounds David Bowiesque, but actually features Bowie himself a bit on vocals.
Despite these few quality tracks though, there are unfortunately just too many throw-away, unmemorable songs on Reflektor. The synths in the first two minutes of “Porno” are very grating and bizarrely sound like a sad version of the synths in “Wonderful Christmastime” by Paul McCartney. (Take a listen…It’s uncanny.) I can feel “Flashbulb Eyes” striving toward the same kind of island vibe that “Here Comes the Night Time” captures, but it completely misses.
It’s perfectly fine for a band to expand their music styles a bit. It might even be fine for a rock band to venture into the realm of dance music. But where is that original intensity that Arcade Fire had that I fell in love with? Where is that passion and urgency? Too much of this record was completely stripped of these senses unfortunately, making it kind of a yawn.