One of Reflektor‘s greatest strengths, I feel, may become of one it’s greatest criticisms. Many will say that Reflektor is not as grand or sprawling as the rest of Arcade Fire’s discography – that it lacks a certain scope or vision prevalent on The Suburbs or The Funeral. I would argue that this is not the case – in fact, I would argue the contrary; Reflektor is the most fully realised album the band have released, and it is precisely because they have evolved and moved on as a group.
The band’s previous three releases make up a trilogy of sorts, connected thematically. Until now, Arcade Fire had been a band obsessed with youthful dreaming, innocence and childhood. The Funeral painted a nostalgic and sweet picture of the past, sentimental, warm and at times almost ubiquitous in its portrayal of how young eyes see the world. Neon Bible, in a sense, was the perfect reactionary album, concerning itself with the loss of said innocence and the pains of looking back on (seemingly) simpler times. That things that were once the pillars of your strength and self worth, such as national identity or your Church, may in fact be gone, changed forever, or possibly even never where what you originally perceived them to be. The Suburbs, then, was the obvious yet perfect conclusion to the traditional three-act structure: it provided resolution. The album contained in its somber reflections the confrontation and combination of ideas introduced in the previous two installments, impressively painting a melancholic, whimsical and conclusive final statement.
This was The Suburbs gift to Reflektor, and on a larger scale Arcade Fire themselves; The Suburbs granted them the ability to move on. Reflektor is its own entity with its own ideas and its own sound, completely divorced from the band’s previous efforts, with a unique voice and style that is at once totally new and fundamentally Arcade Fire.
It also happens to be their best release to date.
Debatably, Reflektor is also the band’s darkest release to date. They’ve turned the critical eye they used to make such haunting observation of small-town suburbia inwards, and have discovered they were in fact doing that the whole time. Reflektor is an album about that realisation, the inability to move beyond introspection; calling it horrible, ugly and shocking, but at the same time, transformative.
Reflektor opens with a seven-minute epic that could really be used as a legend through which to examine the rest of the album as a whole. “Reflektor” concerns itself with with worship and deification of the self, with the struggle to connect to another human being, and in many ways, colours empathy as a wasted effort. A wasted effort which is impossible not to chase, or ache for, however futilely. It does this with the help of a wonderfully hypnotic rhythm, constantly evolving sound and infectious beat. It not only sets the thematic tone for the album; but the sound, too.
In fact, the album manages to perfectly capture a tone Arcade Fire have struggled with before; the songs at once manage to be catchy and memorable without betraying the dour subject matter. In many cases, it even helps to really drive the philosophy of the album home. A perfect example is on the song “We Exist”, which does a fantastic job of being instantly memorable and striking without actually overpowering the lyrics. The song will leave you not just with its simple melody caught in your head, but the nihilistic phrase “Down on your knee’s, begging us please, praying that we don’t exist”, daring you to consider its implications. The permeating funk and rolling pace of the song doesn’t allow for showiness or bombasity – it is simply imparting a message, an idea, in one of the most enduring ways imaginable.
This isn’t to say the album is unemotional, quite the opposite – there’s an obvious strife that comes through in “You Already Know”, with tracks like “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)” inspiring a great sense of celebration (the sincerity of which, however, is up for debate). More, that each song on Reflektor is exactly what it sets out to be. No song feels poorly executed in this regard – each track is just so damn well realised. Reflektor is an album which sounds like it has achieved everything it set out to do, and the tone is absolutely perfect.
The album, despite the aforementioned darkness, is still imbued with the fun, silly sense of joy Arcade Fire pull of so well – there aren’t too many artists who could make the honky tonk present on “Reflektor” and “Here comes the Night time” work, but God bless them, they do. There are also a great deal of influences present on the record, which mesh together flawlessly to the point of being almost indistinct. “Normal Person”, for instance, begins with an almost rockabilly build eventually culminating in a loud, dirty, almost triumphant and almost noise-rock chorus. There’s a great sensical harmony to the bizarre mix on Reflektor.
There’s just so much to be discussed on the record. At times it seems like Reflektor is Arcade Fire’s commentary on their own status as a band – both “Normal Person” and “You Already Know” begin with live introductions to the band – and heck, then there’s the whole thing the band did where they posed as “The Reflektor’s” for actual live performances (interestingly though, the introductions refer to the band as “Arcade Fire” as opposed to “The Reflektor’s”).
Then there are parallels between the album’s narrative and Lyre of Orpheus most for an incredibly interesting dissection. Much like the ancient tale, the band opine that music has the potential to save souls – “if there’s no music in heaven, what is it for?” Win questions on “Here Comes the Night Time”. It raises interesting questions on how far the metaphor extends – the entire album, or just the two tracks? Who is Orpheus? Who is Eurydice? How do they relate to the theme of the double – or is it just the mirrored single? The tracks themselves seem to paint a narrative of eagerly trying to imitate the Hades-defying love present in the tale. Win longingly sings “take all your pain, and put it in me, so you can breathe”, but, as the album initially hinted, there’s a great sense of confusion over emotion and humanity that follows, as the love turns to anger – “I know there’s a way we can make ’em pay”. Oh, it makes you giddy to think about.
Look, the incredibly meandering, obfuscated point I’m trying to make here, is that this is an album worth studying. There is so, so much content, so beautifully and flawlessly presented that it can be baffling at times. The Suburbs, to many, was decade-defining music. Reflektor, I feel, through both content and design, will be artist-defining.