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Arcade Fire
Reflektor Emily Mackay , October 25th, 2013 11:13

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What does a band like Arcade Fire see when it looks in the mirror? Hitting the peak of your powers, as they did on the self-consciously important and wildly, widely acclaimed The Suburbs, can be a disorientating, distorting experience.

The sound of Reflektor is that of a band trying to push at the image of what it can be, through the mirror to the other side. A band who, having brought long-running pet themes (the dark underbelly of the suburbs, lost childhood innocence, the breakdown of civilisation in a war-torn dystopian future) to their fullest expression,  aren't sure what else they can do, but are determined to find out. Like Monster coming after Automatic For The People, or Achtung Baby following The Joshua Tree/Rattle and Hum' it's a band reaching out from the top of of their game and scratching at the parameters; not polished, not perfect, but tightrope-thrilling.

The surprisingly perfect pairing of co-producer James Murphy (the melancholic-hearted Bowiephile beat hedonist) with this seemingly squarest, least disco of bands, is the magic catalyst. From 80s synth slink to Haitian carnival rhythms to house piano, elements that bear Murphy's fingerprints never feel tacked on; rather band and producer have skilfully found a grammar in which these different musics can enter a dialogue with Arcade Fire's frenetic, dark and grandiose art rock. It gels far better than his work on Yeah Yeah Yeah's Mosquito, which on paper might have seemed a far more natural fit.

I mean, who could you less imagine at a carnival than Win Butler, with his mopey, etiolated Elvis face, his dangling, serious limbs? And yet, in 2011 he visited Port Au Prince with Haitian-Canadian wife Regine Chassagne in a trip which he described as "life-changing" in Rolling Stone. Masked and dancing, he says that he felt "less of a break between the spirit and the body". It's a state of mind the band have taken to their new album, and not just in the steel drums sounds, the whirls and stomps and dub drops. Their bodies no longer a cage and their "most important band of a generation" tag no longer a millstone, Arcade Fire are, on this record, dancing themselves right out of their skins.

If there's transformative joy in the music, though, the lyrics often tell a different story. The first of two paired tracks called 'Here Comes The Night Time' starts and ends with a dizzying, accelerating whirl of carnival drums and horns, a carousel of frenzied fiesta, before dropping into foghorn-bass, steel-drum laced lovers rock. "When I hear the beat, the spirit's on me like a live wire/A thousand horses running wild in a city on fire," enthuses Win, but there's a tense mood to this party, Haiti's oppressed and bloody past creeping in: "Yeah, heaven's a place and they know where it is/But you know where it is/It's behind the gate they won't let you in/And when they hear the beat coming from the street they lock the door."

The second of the paired tracks has a heavier heart sonically and more personal troubles at its core, a passive, wounded synth hum laced with Bjork-like string sweeps, with Butler picking over the scabs of a low spell: ""I hurt myself again, along with all my friends/Feels like it never ends/Here comes the night time".

Over and over, this albums frets and grasps at relationships slipping out of reach, gently dying. Oftentimes as in the pairing of 'Awful Sound (Oh, Eurydice)' and 'It's Never Over (Oh, Orpheus)', that seems like a romantic relationship. Other times, as in the conga-flashing, conspiratorially funky, melancholically housey title track – where the ancient image of art as mirror, sometimes true, sometimes false, comes into play – it  seems a falling out of faith with the whole idea of creativity. "Thought you could lead me to the resurrector/Turns out it was just a reflector" mourn Bowie and the band, let down by a false concept.

Elsewhere, it seems to be more specifically a crisis of rock: "Hey… do you like rock and roll music?" drawls Win mockingly as he leads into the disco-Stonesish stomp of 'Normal Person', "because I don't know if I do…". Another thing Win Butler told Rolling Stone about his Haitian carnival epiphany: " It really makes you feel like a hack being in a rock band."

A wobble of intent is to be expected at this stage in Arcade Fire's career, and not just in their lyrics. You might also expect some embarrassing sonic self-indulgences as they flail for new purpose, but while some have found that in the Clashish dub stylings of the camera-hating 'Flashbulb Eyes', but for me, everything here fits them perfectly.

And for all the sense that there's serious sea changing afoot, there's still plain fun, as in the exuberant, Smithsish rock & roll jangle of 'You Already Know' (featuring a sample of one Jonathan Ross introducing the band on Tonight With… near the start of their career) and the hardcore glam thrash and bounce of 'Joan Of Arc'.  The album rarely drags, and where it does, it's in the outros, Murphy and the band perhaps getting a little too into jamming their potent new groove, as on the drawn-out ending of the fractious, half-whispered 'We Exist', with its not-totally-hypnotic bass-synth and shearing guitar groove, or the unnecessary sound collage on the end of the pretty but perhaps superfluous final track 'Supersymmetry' that closes the album with a pretentious whimper.

Still, though a double album of 80 minutes, Reflektor feels shorter than The Suburbs, and better paced; though both discs are strong, the most arresting tracks are the late trio of 'It's Never Over (Oh, Orpheus)', 'Porno' and 'Afterlife', with their related themes of struggling relationships and last glimmers of hope.

The first captures the moment of looking back at the head of stairs to the underworld in a glimmering, mournful track opening with a synth pulse like an alarm clock lost in the dark and building to a black, Cureish maelstrom. "You say it's not me, it's you…" plaints Butler, "Hey Eurydice/Can you see me? I will sing your name/Until you're sick of me", while Chassagne assures, "And if I shout for you, never doubt/Don't turn around too soon". The ambiguity of whether the title phrase is a positive or a negative, whether it's the union or the trouble that's never over, is bitterly delicious.

'Porno', too, is heartbreaking, a breath-held disco prayer that creeps in on fingerclicks and whispers and a steel drum sound twisted into an insistent pulse. as Butler fights to keep caring. "When I reach for you, you say 'I'm over it…' They say love is real, like a disease/Come on tell me, please, I'm not over it".

'Afterlife' closes the theme, with Butler's pleas of 'Can we scream and shout/Just work it out", a Caribbean-tinged, glinting thing with an intro perhaps intentionally reminiscent of New Order's 'Temptation'. "But you say," he frets, "When love's gone, where does it go?" The track ends in intensive-care breaths and bleeps, as Win quavers. "Is this the afterlife?"

The question of what comes next, though, isn't one that Arcade Fire need fear any longer. With Reflektor, they've answered it strongly. Four albums in, their sound glitters with many facets and possibilities – they can be proud of how it reflects on them.

Stinky Pete
Oct 25, 2013 7:13pm

FIRST!
HA!

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Rocha
Oct 25, 2013 7:15pm

Second best double album of the year, with shaking the habitual being the first.

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G
Oct 25, 2013 9:15pm

Only two full listens in and it's nowhere near as bad as some have made out but it's not the earth shatteringly brilliant album of the year either.

Very good in parts, frustratingly up its own ass in others. I'd say this is a mostly spot on review though, especially the bit about the outros.

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JIM
Oct 26, 2013 12:50am

They always sound like a band who's favorite U2 album is Rattle & Hum.

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John
Oct 26, 2013 3:39am

Win Butler says, "deep African voodoo rhythms are the language in Haiti, [they're] basically how people communicate." Is this the most insightful thing rock stars of 2013 are capable of?

It's not enough to acknowledge Haiti's poverty - anything which doesn't place the blame on colonialism (no neo-prefix required) and white supremacy is irresponsible. To traipse around declaring how Haiti changed one's life plays into tired tropes of the mystical "otherness" of the global south.

I can't prevent anyone from enjoying this music but the petit-bourgeois politics surrounding it and its critics leave a bad taste. I demand more from rock in these barbaric times.

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Magnus
Oct 26, 2013 9:46pm

In reply to John:

John,

I'll try linking to it but in the off chance that this site won't allow the link to display then perhaps search out Win Butler's recent interview in Maclean's. He speaks more about the things you're referring to. I'll try to paste the link here:
http://www2.macleans.ca/2013/10/19/arcade-fire-frontman-win-butler-on-haitian-influences-and-plan-b/

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Steve
Oct 26, 2013 10:55pm

In reply to JIM:

Yes! Finally, someone speaks the truth about this band! I've felt so alone...

(ps Arcade Fire would sell their skin to be able to write a song even half as good as Silver & Gold, Heartland, Desire...or most of the other songs on that album. Rattle and Hum has some good songs, but that version of U2 is not something that anyone should resemble. Even U2 know that)

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John
Oct 27, 2013 6:22am

In reply to Magnus:

Thank you for the article Magnus. It doesn't quell the reservations I have about this band. "It felt really tribal," says Butler. He's clueless. Acknowledging Haiti's revolutionary history is only the first step. He asks us to "acknowledge" France's colonial past rather than "acknowledge" the West's contemporary role in exploiting Haiti. History did not end in 1804!

Ecstatic experiences are not limited to the "third world." Haitian's hold no spiritual secrets. Their conditions require profound art, but it's not something we should "learn" from. Music is not its own discrete autonomous zone for spiritual enjoyment. It's in the fabric our species. Arcade Fire feels dangerous because they enable an attitude of "allowable" ecstasy. Put in your 8 hours and drive home listening to the transcendent highlight of your day. There's a reason Google likes them.

I'll grant Butler is not a chauvinist, he understands racism is a factor, but I'm not interested in giving cookies. His praise of Bono is framed around the West being the savior to the exploited. "trying to convince the Netherlands, say, to give 0.5 per cent more of their GDP to the Third World. It gets really abstract." The best our rock stars can do is beg the imperialist nations to provide more charity. Good lord. Haiti's problems are not "really abstract," they do not require a team of Washington policy wonks. If America and its corporate vampires left tomorrow, that would be an improvement greater than 0.5 per cent of the Netherlands' GDP.

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Navarre
Oct 27, 2013 8:50am

In reply to John:

As a South African I find "Yeah, heaven's a place and they know where it is/But you know where it is/It's behind the gate they won't let you in/And when they hear the beat coming from the street they lock the door." an apt descriptor of American foreign politics. Don't presume your outrage makes you special, or that throwing around terms like petit-bourgeois adds anything to the conversation. Also apportioning blame on colonialism already casts the global south as a victim who must overcome, which I find quite patronizing firstly, and more importantly, which feeds the notion that the west is somehow better off and not in dire need of revising its politics. Turns out you aren't annoyed at arcade fire, turns out they were just a reflector.

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Andrew Wales
Oct 27, 2013 2:35pm

This is really quite a brilliant album and this is the first review I've comes across that is written by someone who not only has listened to it more than 2 or 3 times (to try and make a "snap judgement" on this work, shows it no respect whatsoever), but is also a very good writer into the bargain!

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John
Oct 28, 2013 6:01am

Navarre - I do not use "petit-bourgeois" to gain cred. It's to analyze the present state of popular rock music. Dan Bejar called it "the wealthy American underground," if you require less jargon. Frankly, petty-boug is a basic marxist term; every revolutionary movement is familiar with it because it describes an actually-existing class with harmful interests.

How does stating the reality of colonialism give less agency to its targets? I do not think Haiti is incapable of solving its poverty, but its deprivation rests on the vampirism of others.

http://www.businessinsider.com/wikileaks-haiti-minimum-wage-the-nation-2011-6

The west does not have perfect politics, and I apologize for giving you that impression. It ruthlessly exploits its own laboring class. The superprofits from imperialism primarily benefit its ruling class and various, yes, clerical petit-bourgeoisie who work in the bureaucratic war machine.

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Cal
Oct 28, 2013 12:34pm

In reply to John:

I bet you're fun at parties

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Another John
Oct 28, 2013 1:17pm

In reply to John:

'I demand more from rock in these barbaric times.'

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John
Oct 28, 2013 8:23pm

In reply to Another John:

hahaha yes a line like that is probably asking for too much, but i think reducing art to chilling out is reflective of something dire. i hate laughter and having fun.

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kc
Oct 29, 2013 4:56pm

In reply to John:

You are right. Indie music like is incredibly boring. Just like Radiohead before them, Arcade Fire want their cake and to eat it too. It's a sad reflection of liberals that they think these bands have anything to offer politically, revolutionary or otherwise. If they did they wouldn't be on NBC advertising their goods. They're just a bland as John Stewart.

I've been listening to The Wavves, Sinead and Bob Marley as an antidote.

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gravity
Oct 30, 2013 8:19am

In reply to kc:

All you see or hear on TV is a product made up for dirty dollar...send more money. buy new record....

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Filthy Habits
Oct 30, 2013 2:00pm

I can understand people's opinions about this record, both good and bad. If you don't connect with it, that's fine. But the cynical attitude towards "the band's politics" is something else entirely. As someone who's followed this band for a long time, i.e. read countless of interviews with Win etc., I'm certain their intentions are nothing but good. Everyone needs to start somewhere, and the whole "musicians who are rich are just shaking their finger" sorta shit is pretty pathetic. I highly doubt those who have reservations with their politics are doing anything remotely constructive for their own.

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SinfulCin
Oct 31, 2013 5:34pm

I hate it when albums, usually from a press release, pick up a phrase or a description that gets repeated in every review, such as: this is Arcade Fire's Monster or Achtung Baby. How many times have I heard that? Usually a sign that the record is pure hype.

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SinfulCin
Oct 31, 2013 5:36pm

In reply to kc:

This is what makes contemporary music so boring: it's just repeating formulas that have already been proven to be duds lol. Radiohead WASNT the savior of humanity, and we want to go back to THAT again?

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Boost
Nov 1, 2013 2:56am

No balls to this music whatsoever. Arcade Fire cannot fool themselves into making good groove-based tunes even with James Murphy in control. Watch their SNL performance...the most self-conscious and sad white people dancing you'll ever see. The band don't believe in it themselves. Reflektors, night time, Kierkegaard. Jesus, save it for community college. I'm too old for this shit. Silly album for silly people.

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Bob
Nov 2, 2013 12:44am

Wasn't sure what to expect from this after reading such contrasting reviews. It's a rare album that can keep me listening from beginning to end and then make me want to listen to it immediately again. This one does. Does that make it any good ? Well, it'll do for me.

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