“Do you like rock ‘n’ roll music/Cuz I don’t know if I do?”, quivers Arcade Fire’s Win Butler on “Normal Person”. Reflektor, the band’s latest album, is the sound of a new direction. What kind of music does Butler like? Over a 75 minute, 13-song double-album, Arcade Fire searches for answers and crafts innovative, divisive art-rock, with hints of vintage disco, 80’s New Wave, arena-rock, and ambient weirdness.
The eponymous first track, “Reflektor”, sums up everything: 7 and a half minutes of thrilling, weird, danceable indie-rock. It’s avant-garde yet pop, nostalgic yet boundary-pushing, serene yet epic. A twinkly piano, steady drums, droning synths, 70’s electric guitar, and a huge, soaring chorus set the backdrop for an epic tale of romance in the Digital Age (“We fell in love when I was nineteen”/”Now we’re staring at a screen” sing Butler and co-band member/wife Regine Chassagne). The result is something that feels instantly familiar yet totally new.
Arcade Fire doesn’t stop the surprises there. “Flashbulb Eyes” is basically slowed-down dance floor Clash (minus the British accents, with added sound effects). The Haitian-influeneced “Here Comes The Night Time”, the album’s centerpiece, begins with Sgt. Pepper-y jibber-jabber and then switches between a lighting fast psychedelic drum beat and calming Reggae pop. It sounds nothing like typical Arcade Fire but it feels fresh, bold, and danceable.
It’s only on Side 2 (if, like me, you’re listening to the album on vinyl) when things start to feel a bit tiresome. Though “We Exist” sounds like 80’s New Wave and the guitar riffs of “Normal Person” are fun, both songs start enticingly and then drag. “You Already Know” and “Joan of Arc” are even more catchy and hummable but it feels like the band doesn’t know what to do.
The second of the 2 discs is slower, more out-there, and less concerned with hummable-ness than Disc 1. “Here Comes The Night Time II” is a nice continuation of its predecessor, though it’s not as daring as the rest of the songs here. “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)” is a completely different matter. Grand and uncompromising, Win Butler’s cryptic, perfectly sung lyrics mesh with a slow-building beat and eerie airplane whirrs. Then the song pauses and a booming drum fill introduces the straight-from-the-70’s singalong chorus. In their review, Pitchfork said the song “aims to be nothing less than all the Beatles songs at once (“Hey Jude” and “Revolution 9″ included).” It’s a fascinating comparison and one that’s shows the risks Arcade Fire is willing to take, whether they succeed or not.
A follow up, “It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus)” doesn’t need to be here, while “Porno” and “Afterlife” are near-perfect pieces of dance-pop. Just as things start to get going, however, “Supersymmetry” ends the album in spectacularly boring fashion.
On a whole, Reflektor isn’t nearly as consistent as Arcade Fire’s previous albums but it’s more innovative than anything they’ve made since their debut, 2004’s Funeral. Yes, the album has some glaring editing problems and an often annoying hit-or-miss tone. Yet with songs like “Reflektor” and “Here Comes the Night Time”, Win Butler’s existential lyrics, and James Murphy’s rich, layered production, I found it hard not to applaud the glorious ambition on display, even when the songs fell flat. Reflektor has some of Arcade Fire’s best songs and some of their worst but anyone who cares about music will want to sit down and give this album a long, proper listen.