Arcade Fire – Reflektor
If there was such a thing as Difficult Fourth Album Syndrome, Reflektor would typify and define it. It is Arcade Fire’s The Unforgettable Fire, their Viva La Vida, a testing of the template. In the same way that U2 and Coldplay sought to broaden their palette as much as their appeal with those milestones, Arcade Fire ready themselves for the next commercial plateau. The difference? Reflektor feels less like an advancement, more like a retreat, its schizoid meanderings indicative of an uncertain aesthetic.
Reflektor could have been many things, but the much-trumpeted involvement of LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy (alongside regular producer Marcus Dravs – that Coldplay connection again) results in little that is radical or daring. The title track, trailed as part of the emerging, canny promotional campaign, remains a genuine blast. But it sounds little like the future and an awful lot like the past, a collision of guitars, synths and dominant bass. Dress it up as cyber-disco if you like but its sleek lines, the knock-out chord change that pumps the chorus, are familiar enough. It recalls nothing more left-field than Voulez-Vous era ABBA (a compliment) and, drawn out over a momentous seven minutes.
If only Reflektor had more of that winning swagger. Flashbulb Eyes introduces a dub vibe and, along with Joan of Arc (“First they love you, then kill you / Then they love you again”); muses on fickle fame. Here Comes the Night Time reinforces the beats-driven approach. On Normal Person, Win Butler sings “I’m so confused, am I a normal person?” This is archetypal fourth album material: no-one ever stewed on the emptiness of the spotlight on their debut. The backing bulges with bass to the fore and there’s a squealing counterpoint guitar, processed to the point where it could be a tenor sax. Bowie’s late 70s work (the dame makes an almost imperceptible appearance on the title track), as ever, remains the production influence of choice for the modern scene’s emerging champions.
Disc 2 edges disc 1, largely for Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice) and It's Never Over (Oh Orpheus) a pair of linked tracks that proves Arcade Fire know their Greek myths (“Hey Orpheus! I’m behind you, don’t turn around”) as well as they recognise, when they try, a good punchline: “You say it’s not me, it’s you…” But those highlights, you have to look for them. Reflektor is not a complex work and neither is it particularly weird: it feels sketchy, relying on stylistic twitches rather than fleshed-out explorations. Its sprawl and expanse are physical rather than cerebral: it has size but lacks scale. Arcade Fire have previously given enough indication to suggest that they’re sharply self-aware, but much of this album is awkwardly so. Butler’s lyrics are largely featureless, their language unadventurous. We Exist has Motown smarts, its looping bassline a dead ringer for The Four Tops’ I Can’t Help Myself, but the words (“You know that we're young, you know that we're confused / But will you watch us drown? What are you so afraid to lose?”) keep it frustratingly earth-bound.
It’s a shame that Arcade Fire never convincingly spark their lofty intentions with anything as sharply observed and as affecting as, say, the small town imaginings of Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels) or the macro focus of much of previous album The Suburbs. Butler is good on detail, strong on the half-formed memories of childhood and knows how to illuminate the past without cloying sentiment. But Reflektor, apparently inspired by a fascination with Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, only flails at the bigger questions and asks little of the self. “When your love is right you can't sleep at night / But when your love is bad…I don't know why you're so sad,” laments Butler on You Already Know.
Ultimately Reflektor reinforces the truism that every double album (it clocks in at a wopping 76 minutes) ever recorded has an excellent single album hidden in there somewhere. Its high spots are a rush: the quickening throb of Afterlife, the glorious title track. Oddly, you wish it stuck to the script more than it does, delivered more of those archetypal Arcade Fire moments: a fist-pumping gear shift, a deftly engineered bridge, those breathless stop-start moments. Much in line with Reflektor’s rug-pulling marketing campaign, the actual music has a worryingly ersatz quality: you wonder if there’s a twist, like maybe it’s not even them on the record. Here’s a band at play, but making music that is never really playful enough to charm, thrill, and engage in the way only they knew how.