A REVIEW BY
Dan Adler ’14
Volume XXXVI, Issue 3, December 13, 2013
Even if Arcade Fire is not the biggest musical act of the past decade, you might say it has been the musical act with the biggest ideas. Whether you read the band as unbearably self-serious or epically imaginative, the scale of its sonic vision (think orchestra-rock: all the standard instruments, plus strings, horns, and organs) has been matched only by the scale of its lyrical vision (think of the literature that permeates high school curricula: death, religion, and alienation abound).
And in its fourth effort, the recently released Reflektor, Arcade Fire has now taken on the sounds of the disco and the theme of the very act of listening to music in the Information Age. “Trapped in a prison, in a prism of light,” Win Butler croons in the opening lines of the album and its title track. “Alone in the darkness, darkness of white—we feel in love, alone on a stage, in the reflective age.” The tyranny of computer screens and technology’s mediation of identities and experiences—this is the stuff of a band that falls squarely in the center of pop culture discourse.
I now bear the uniquely challenging burden of trying to say something about how technology affects culture without being insufferably trite and patronizing. Hear me out, though, for at least a moment—I promise not to talk about how the internet diminishes our capacity for empathy or anything like that (in fact, I submit to you that think-pieces about how the internet diminishes our capacity for empathy diminish our capacity for empathy).
But I do want to talk about internet routines. I’ve just asked three people on A-level whether they have them, and they all do: When you log onto a computer enough, they confirmed, you tend to develop a studied regimen of social networking and web browsing. My routine involves a series of bookmark folders, one of which is called “Music.” I knew Arcade Fire was big, but I never how big until the weeks before and after Reflektor was released: I could hardly take a step in this folder without bumping into a review, think-piece, or news clip about the album or the band. It’s difficult to think about Reflektor for very long without thinking about what people are saying about Reflektor.
And in every aspect of the reception of the album—except the reception of the album itself, which was quite warm—Reflektor has been widely panned. Its publicity campaign, a series of mysterious graffiti scrawls and images projected onto buildings, was condemned as incoherent, intrusive, and downright irritating. The band issued a dress code for its shows in support of the album (“NIGHT OF SHOW:” the tickets say, “Please wear formal attire or costume.”) After the ensuing outrage—Megan Wiegand argued in Slate that the dress code was a presumptuous attempt to retrieve an indie intimacy that the Grammy-winning band could no longer lay claim to—a message was posted to the Arcade Fire Facebook page: “Please relax. It’s super not mandatory.” Attempts to embrace the band’s fame didn’t fare much better: A show atop Capitol Records was lambasted as a cheap attempt to enact the iconic.
In all cases, these concerns have to do with the cultural status of rock—where, say, indie ends and commercial begins. To like or dislike Arcade Fire now occupies a broad cultural space as much as it does a musical space. In light of the ongoing debate about cultural appropriation in rock (the band’s enduring use of Haitian sounds and images has helped it surpass Vampire Weekend as the foremost recipient of that brand of criticism), it even occupies a political space. In other words, Reflektor is a case study in how our experience of experiencing music is related to our actual experience of music. With one recent exception—isn’t it funny that Reflektor and Yeezus were both released this year?—that relationship has rarely been more complex.
I suspect the band’s members know as much. They’re reading the think-pieces, too: In 2007, multi-instrumentalist Will Butler even took the time to thoughtfully (and, I’d argue, convincingly) respond to Sasha Frere-Jones’ bemoaning of what he perceived to be a lack of black influences in the band’s sound (how the cultural appropriation tables turned!). So it’s appropriate that the very experience of listening to the album they created is as conceptually dense as the second-order experience I’ve described. The tracks are long, and the array of influences and sounds is vast; the album’s two discs each engage very different modes of listening.
I can’t describe how the first disc feels any better than how Win Butler described the aim of the album to Stephen Colbert: “Ideally, you’d be shaking your ass with a little tear in your eye.” It’s a healthy dose of Arcade Fire’s trademark sincerity mixed with an explicit appeal to a dancer’s impulses. The crescendo of “Here Comes the Night Time” is one of my favorite bits of music in some time. In its gradual, pulsing build-up and triumphant climax, the song calls to mind LCD Soundsystem’s “Dance Yrself Clean”—a nice reminder that James Murphy co-produced the album.
In other places, the album is frustratingly self-absorbed. Win Butler’s growling preface to “Normal Person”—“Do you like rock and roll music? ‘Cause I don’t know if I do…”—has become a subject of critical debate in its own right. The wink and a nod approach might provoke fewer eye rolls if ”Normal Person” were a more convincing rock and roll song. The second disc of Reflektor is quieter and more ethereal than the first—a labored attempt to reach the same emotional heights that the band’s previous albums climbed so effortlessly. It works, sometimes: The darkly gorgeous “It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus)” is the highlight of the album for me. But, for the most part, it feels unfortunately cloying. Here’s a lyric from “Porno,” a track I’ve seen described as the album’s worst just about everywhere I’ve looked: “Little boys with their porno, makes me feel like something’s wrong, it’s the only world we know.”
I’ve listened to this album more than any other this year, proportionally to how long it has been out, but nothing has stuck in my ear the way, say, “Rebellion (Lies)” off Funeral or “The Well and the Lighthouse” off Neon Bible has. In that way, I think Reflektor is Arcade Fire’s worst album, by which I just mean I like it the least. But I think it’s by far the most interesting. Not just for its lush variety of musical textures, but because that variety is worthy of the critical rigmarole that inevitably awaited the album.
But the only way to make sense of an album that is about the experience of listening is to actually experience it. So I want to recommend that you listen to this album, not because I think it will change it your life, but because I think it’s interesting. I also want to recommend that you listen to it in a particular way. If you want to get the most you can from Reflektor, take a week off from listening to or reading about Arcade Fire. Then, you know, listen to it.