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Thursday, October 31, 2013

Album of the Week: Arcade Fire - "Reflektor"

Rating: 9.7/10

"Do you like rock and roll music?" asks Win Butler at the beginning of "Normal Person," before answering his own question with a half-hearted "'cause I don't know if I do." It's a fair question to ask, based on the way Reflektor sounds. For their fourth record, Arcade Fire have ditched their former anthemic indie style for a synthed-out, danceable, new-wave direction for the majority of the new tunes. Guitars do not play nearly as large a role on Reflektor as they did on any of the band's previous three releases; the same can be said about violins. Instead, the samba-influenced drum beats have moved to the forefront, giving several songs an upbeat, exhilarating pace. Butler told Rolling Stone last week that the band "just wanted to make a record Regine could dance to." The thirteen-track double album sounds like a party all the way through, though it's lyrics tell a different story.

Touching on common Arcade Fire themes of religion (especially salvation) and love, Reflektor's lyrics also sound more existential and philosophical than ever before, at times verging on nihilistic. The themes of old are still represented, as one song's title is dedicated to the "Afterlife," on which Butler exclaims, "Afterlife, oh my God, what an awful word." The title track also discusses similar ideas: "If this is heaven, I don't know what it's for. If I can't find you there, I don't care," says Butler, following up Regine Chassagne's entry (translated from French) of  "between the realms of the living and the dead."

However, Arcade Fire also sing with a possibly bleaker outlook than seen in the past. On the '80's throwback "We Exist," contains the line "they're down on their knees, begging us please, praying that we don't exist." The song itself expands and extends for three and a half minutes before easing its way back down to a quiet rumble. Many of Reflektor's other songs follow suit, growing bigger as more and more sounds are added in until reaching immense heights before finally descending back down to earth.

The song that perhaps fits this description best is the ridiculously catchy, invigorating, Hatian-flavored "Here Comes the Night Time." Starting with a turbulent guitar riff that flies up and down the fret board, the track soon mutates into a slowed-down, bouncy Calypso groove. Playful piano and bass parts are contrasted by lyrics like "heaven's a place and they know where it is, but you know where it is? It's behind a gate, and they won't let you in." Ultimately, the party starts up again, as a wild rush of guitars and snare drums pick up the tempo exceptionally. "Here Comes the Night Time" never gets boring despite its six-and-a-half minute runtime, much like the whole album, which sits at about seventy-five minutes long.

The title track is another example of how Arcade Fire can draw you in for an extended period of time without sounding ever sounding bland. "Reflektor" was the lead single and thus the world's first taste of how the new Arcade Fire sounded, and it was well worth the lengthy wait. Starting with a garbled, muffled version of the piano intro to Funeral's opening song "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)," seemingly to give the listener one more taste of the ways of old, soon to be extinct. The jumpy track was reviewed in full on the blog upon its release, but here's a bit of a refresher. A synth-dominated song, it featured a guest spot from none other than David Bowie and showed clear signs of ex-LCD Soundsystem singer James Murphy's influence from the production booth. It builds and builds, growing in intensity and size.

It was a misleading track, however, in the sense that it seemed to indicate Chassagne would have a big vocal role on the upcoming release. Instead, Reflektor is a Win-dominated affair, with Chassagne's biggest singing contribution on the record is probably on the partially-funky, partially-sincere "It's Never Over (Hey Orpheus)," during which she is granted several verse. Make no mistake, she's still very important to the group, and does pop up in almost every song. But it always feels as if she's taking a backseat to fellow vocalist and husband Win. Which is a shame, as some of Arcade Fire's best song utilize her vocals as a principal component. The disco wash of "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)," the soaring shuffle of "Haiti," and the "Bad Vibrations" half of "Black Wave/Bad Vibrations" all featured her in the lead. Still, if this is what people will pick out as Reflektor's major fault, then it's evident that it's a nearly flawless album.

Disc one (which I personally think is slightly superior to its counterpart) contains what has been dubbed as the "rock" song stretch of "Normal Person," "You Already Know," and "Joan of Arc." The three-song spell is granted this moniker suitably, as the tracks are the most conventional sounding on Reflektor. "Normal Person" is, for me, second only to "Here Comes the Night Time" on the record. A jarring, riotous chorus of "I've never really ever been a normal person like you" turns it up to 11 with a disjointed guitar wail and ferocious drumming. The choruses are sandwiched by the group doing their best Rolling Stones impression, as a constantly piping piano, bluesy guitars, and rollicking drum beat sit under Butler's growled message to so-called 'misfits' everywhere. "Is there anything strange as a normal person?" asks Butler, criticizing society's way of demanding conformity and rejection of individuality. He follows up on his question by singing, "I can't tell if I'm a normal person, it's true. I think I'm cool enough, but am I cruel enough? Am I cruel enough for you?" Lyrically, it might be the most transparent and resultingly relatable song on the album, and muscially, it sounds tumultuously powerful.

"You Already Know," featuring a sample of UK talk show host Jonathan Ross introducing the band, has a Simon & Garfunkel-styled folky liveliness to it. "Joan of Arc" closes out the album's first half, and though not the album's finest moment, it still has a catchy chorus and compelling outro. Before moving on to disx two, though, "Flashbulb Eyes" should be mentioned. The bouncy jingle is probably the weakest song on the album, though that's not much of an insult. It's not by any means a bad song, just a brief, simple samba. It sounds like a more-polished, better-crafted version of another one of 2013's new tracks, "Under the Earth" by Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

Disc #2 starts with "Here Comes the Night Time II," a sort of epilogue to the song's namesake. The floating keyboards sound like the night time has already arrived, despite what the title suggests. It's the most low-key of the tracks of Reflektor, with its subdued instrumentals setting the stage for a slightly more dour second half. However, the following track, "Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)," discards the sadness and takes the listener on a multi-part journey through valleys of synthesizers and orchestral arrangements. What begins as a rolling saunter morphs again and again, each time picking up a new instrument. Acoustic and later electric guitars, strings, and a dreamy synthesizer melody all join the pack before everything switches it up, jumping straight into a more structured, classic rock-ish section around the three-minute mark. The outro is Arcade Fire's "Hey Jude," as bittersweet-sounding "Na na na's" ride out the song.

Albeit awkwardly named, "Porno" focuses in on a groove and sticks with it through thick and thin. The keys once again drive the track as Win devotedly pledges allegiance to his partner. The song shimmers, much like its soaring and truly outstanding follower "Afterlife." A pairing of jittery drums and frantic keyboard hits supply a strong backbones as Butler gives a cool, honest, remarkably beautiful performance. "I've gotta know," shout the singing pair of Butler and Chassagne in unison to kick off the chorus, joined by a jazzy drum fill. "Supersymmetry" closes out the record, though its eleven-minute runtime is misleading; the final 5+ minutes are simply feedback and essentially a seperate entity, simply there to slowly bring the listener back to the real world. The actual song features a slow, glittering keyboard piece over an echoing drum beat.

Reflektor is an album that is immediately accesible and rewarding yet simultaneously daunting. Fans should not be deterred by the album's extreme length, as every single second of music is absolutely vital. Words like fun, groovy, dangerous, deep, layered, and beautiful can only begin to describe this album, and showcase its expansive range of successes. Is it the band's best? Time will tell. Most likely not, but this album could easily grow on me even more than it already has. An essential addition to a loaded calendar year, Reflektor will surely be near the top of many year-end lists, and who can really argue against that?

Key tracks: "Here Comes the Night Time," "Normal Person," "Reflektor," "Afterlife"

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