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All hail Arcade Fire.
Through guerrilla marketing, ambiguous-yet-stunning teaser videos, creative and interactive music videos, secret shows, and an insane, celebrity-studded special following their SNL performance in September, the six-piece indie-rock band carefully (and smartly) crafted a beastly level of hype for their new album, cementing Reflektor as the most anticipated new release of 2013.
How rare it is to find a band that has critics salivating over new music unprecedentedly far in advance (see Rolling Stone’s review of Reflektor, posted a month before the album came out); since the first concrete whisperings of a new Arcade Fire album were heard, music publications were frantically scrounging for any and all information on the new release. The leak of the first single, “Reflektor,” which boasts a guest appearance from music-legend David Bowie, set the Internet on fire. And even more rare than all that is overhearing painfully hip college kids in Starbucks loudly professing to their friends that a band is easily the most important band on the scene right now, and being correct in their proclamation.
The wildest part of all, of course, is that Arcade Fire is a band that has ability to create such a frenzy about their forthcoming music, and then, on the day of the new album’s release, actually deliver. Reflektor is an incredible record—a double-album release spanning just under an hour and a half, it’s a haunting, dazzling landscape populated with Haitian beats, a generous amount of synth, and the trademark Arcade Fire lyrics trying to dissect what it means to be a human.
Rhythmically, this is Arcade Fire’s most “upbeat” release in their discography, culminating in an album that, on the surface, seems far poppier than their previous work. Frontman and co-founder Win Butler described the new sound as a “mash up of Studio 54 and Haitian voodoo,” so it’s definitely not the usual Arcade Fire sound everyone has grown accustomed to. Aside from the Haitian influences, James Murphy’s hand in making Reflektor also undoubtedly played a large role in the album’s sound. Murphy, king of dance music and former frontman of LCD Soundsystem, helped produce Reflektor in his own New York-based studio. There are echoes of Murphy’s LCD Soundsystem work woven into Arcade Fire’s new record, most notably in the single, “Reflektor,” but it doesn’t sound out-of-place or forced. It’s organic; marrying the two’s aesthetics together works out wonderfully.
Still, despite the difference in production in this album verses older releases, it would be wrong to call Reflektor a “departure.” The inklings of the electronic, disco-esque quality in Reflektor are present on 2010’s The Suburbs in the track, “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains),” and the themes explored on Reflektor have appeared on other releases. The idea of death and mourning is the theme of their debut, Funeral (2004), and Reflektor vaguely glances at those ideas; the fear/anger of misrepresentation and distrust of the age we live in, particularly politically, reared its head on Neon Bible (2007), and is also important on Reflektor; finally, The Suburbs is heavy in its criticism of the internet-age and the harshness of our world today, and Reflektor takes that theme and runs even farther with it. Rather than departing they’re evolving, introducing new elements to the production of their music while also delving into a more in-depth exploration of themes that have also appeared on their other records.
Like previous releases, Reflektor is the sort of album that makes the biggest impact when listened all the way through from start-to-finish so that the delicate little intricacies of the band’s big idea sort of narrative can be most effectively communicated—Arcade Fire thinks in terms of overall story, not singular songs. That being said, there are still definitely stand-out tracks.
Aside from the opening track and single, “Reflektor,” which is easily one of the catchiest songs on the record, “It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus),” is one of the more arresting—driven by its beat and the creepy-but-addictive vocals of Régine Chassagne (indie darling Arcade Fire frontwoman and wife of Butler), it’s also a song where Murphy’s presence is potent.
“Afterlife,” the second-to-last track on Reflektor, is bound to be a favorite amongst fans; it’s an airy, sunny-sounding song where the Haitian influence is particularly strong, although the repeated question of, “When love is gone/Where does it go?” gives it the Arcade Fire touch of tough-love, tough-questions. In the same vein, sound-wise, “Here Comes the Nighttime” and “We Exist” are two songs with edgy, catchy beats that have the most dance potential.
Also worth noting is “Joan of Arc,” one of the best songs on the album, which veers more into punk/alternative territory rather than focusing on the electronic aspect of the album, featuring a creepy, quiet crooning from Butler of, “First they love you/Then the kill you/Then they love you again.”
The only sort-of misstep song that is out of place yet still somehow awesome is “Normal Person,” which is also most likely the next single. With an underlying piano riff harkening back to the piano that drove The Suburbs’ “We Used to Wait” buried under killer, classic rock-n-roll guitar shredding, a very loud drum kit, and those Haitian beats, it’s both semi-condescending and catchy. Lyrically, it’s more heavy-handed than the typical Arcade Fire song where the words have as much artistry as the musical production.
“Is there anything as strange as a normal person?” Butler asks in the song, following up with, “I think I’m cool enough/But am I cruel enough/Am I cruel enough/For you?” Considering the inventiveness that Arcade Fire has exhibited throughout their career, it seems almost wrong that they would revolve a song around an idea that is so tired and banal, but despite that, musically it’s still a really fun and powerful track. Even when Arcade Fire isn’t at their best, they’re still incredible.
Important to note, though, is that Reflektor is not a dance record. The involvement of Murphy and emphasized importance of Haitian beats have perpetuated this misconception, but Reflektor simply does not have the dance element that LCD Soundsystem had, or that “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” had. Arcade Fire said they wanted to make a more dance-friendly album, but they missed the mark on that. To the credit of this album, frankly. Adding an element of electronic production doesn’t mean the same thing as making a dance album—with the exception of a few tracks, Reflektor is probably not going to find its way into the clubs any time soon. Which is for the best.
Reflektor is a big album (in both ideas and length), a multi-layered, complicated commentary and dissection of our world today (“We’re still connected/But are we even friends?”) should be listened to, really listened to, because this record has something to say.
Reflektor is an exciting evolution for Arcade Fire, a monstrous album that is a combination of intelligence, ingenuity, creativity, art, heart, and social commentary; it’s stunning. And, an added bonus, it makes it easy to say the sentence, “Arcade Fire’s Reflektor is the best album to be released in 2013,” without any question as to whether or not it’s true.