We’ve been here before: Yezus, Centipede Hz; the deliberately weird and weirdly singular follow up to a career-defining critical and commercial success. It’s not to say that these albums are necessarily worse than their predecessors, but artists and critics alike must be careful of how much credibility we give a release for not sounding like it “should.” In terms of reception, there is probably nowhere to go but down from an album like The Suburbs. And thank god, because unlike The Suburbs, Reflektor is a pretty good album. Pretty good, like, first two seasons of House good.
Arcade Fire have turned from baroque warmth to a distant, cocaine-fueled (I’m not accusing anyone of doing cocaine) snarl, reminiscent of the jagged New York sound that the Talking Heads splayed against world music in the years between Fear of Music and Speaking in Tongues. But where the Talking Heads carved out a niche with the latter album by incorporating more funk and electronica, Arcade Fire do the same exact thing – 30 years later. I really appreciate what they’re going for; Reflektor is seemingly meant to be Arcade Fire’s silliest album, and though comparisons to stadium acts like Springsteen or U2 are not unwarranted, Butler, Chassange and co. seem to understand how goofy and weird their guitar-meets-laptop synthesizers sound actually is.
But the album that should in theory be Arcade Fire’s low key, goofball rock record also seems to be striving to be their most epic release yet. Reflektor is a great big deliberate mess, but that mess sort of screams itself into a kind of uncomfortable anthemic unison. There are hints of the rhythmic dub rock that has infested American indie, most notably on “Flashbulb Eyes”, as well as the haughty Springsteen saturation on “Normal Person”; both seem to basically be the go-to sound for any group of a certain status. Reflektor’s eager mix of studio ambience, sampled dialogue, and overdriven vocals makes it an incredibly frenetic listen. A waveform of this album probably looks more like a stable tube than anything you’ve seem on Soundcloud.
It seems a shame that this is what Arcade Fire have done; I honestly don’t think orchestral indie acts with their particular acidity (at least that expressed on Neon Bible) are particularly well-represented. Again, this is a reaction; a deliberate attempt for the Arcade Fire to put some distance between themselves and their very popular Suburbs album. Much like Centipede Hz, Reflektor has its moments of true emotional solvency, such as Regine Chassagne’s slippery vocals on the beautifully forceful disco-pop choruses of “Joan Of Arc.”
Almost every song on Reflektor has some great moments, but hardly any is a truly great song. If Reflektor is to be taken as the sum of its moments and not of its songs, then fine, but I don’t thinkt hat’s what we’re supposed to be doing. The album’s sound exhibits a notion of aural excellence so directly sampled from decades of bombastic hip-hop and direct input electronica, that it’s kind of hard to stomach claims that Reflektor is Arcade Fire’s “best” sounding album yet.
Hardly as iconic as Funeral, hardly as powerful as Neon Bible, Reflektor is, at the very least, not trying to be either. It isn’t The Suburbs, but it also isn’t a return to form so much as it is a dubious reformatting. I would hate to sound like I’m criticizing a band for not sounding like they used to, but if it’s possible to be weird and experimental on your own grounds (which I think it is for Arcade Fire), then maybe you shouldn’t just go straight for someone else’s idea of experimentation.
When you sink your teeth into the goofy, neo-noir disco shag of “Reflektor”, you’re expecting the album that follows to be an absurd comic lapdance. What you get is like if Strictly Ballroom tried to be the Zeferelli Romeo and Juliette. It’s still cheesy, weird, and incredible, but it’s also great without the added melodramatic “legitimacy”. Arcade Fire probably has too many band members (all of whom seem to play a legitimate role in songwriting) to ever make something as effortlessly meek as Nebraska or 77. They’ve put a massive amount of work into trying to sound small and damaged, but they sounded much more effortless when their music was naturally massive.