Arcade Fire Sharpen Their Edges on the Sprawling, Frequently Awesome ‘Reflektor’
Release Date: October 29, 2013
Do what you want with the Arcade Fire: Cherish or disdain them, define yourself by or against them, laugh with or at them. But they make you feel something; they make you do something. As the 21st century’s preeminent (North) American arena-rock band, trafficking unapologetically in Big Ideas and Grand Gestures (often while wearing Ridiculous Costumes), they simultaneously thrill their fans and troll their detractors with astounding zeal. And now they’ve gone to Haiti, danced at Carnival, and made a whole dub/rara/dance-punk record about it, so beat that with a stick.
Reflektor is long and weird and indulgent and deeply committed. It has three to five genuinely great songs; it also wanders off into the filler hinterlands for 20 minutes or so (out of 70). Even at its island-vibes worst, it never sinks below the level of that Sublime song about the L.A. riots, and it’s cool if you still like that song. FOH lyrical moments are kept to a minimum (“What if the camera / Really do / Take your soul / Oh no!”). James Murphy produces the hell out of it — the title track alone is a nervy, propulsive near-masterpiece of ambient ennui — but in terms of fellow underground-darling-to-Grammy-crasher success stories, the whole shebang owes less to Murphy’s LCD Soundsystem than to Vampire Weekend, from whom Win Butler and co. most likely learned to use their passport stamps as musical inspiration without coming across (well, to most people, anyway) as craven imperialist marauders. (You gotta admit that syncing their full-album, pre-release-stream lyric video to the 1959 Brazilian flick Black Orpheus is some impressively zealous trolling.)
Verily, “Reflektor” may be the Montreal band’s best single yet — the bridge alone, the thrilling murmur of accruing detail in that clattering breakdown, the synth-bass-drop-as-alien-invasion grandiosity, the palpable sense that light-show-wise it’s liable to be the rock-concert-Vine highlight of 2014 — but as the title and leadoff track, it’s a bit of a feint. Sonically, Murphy never looms quite so large again, though his obliquely strategic hand is sure throughout; the peppy congas mostly beat it until 11 tracks later, when “Afterlife” affects a slight return with a marginally stodgier groove and a marginally muddier chorus. More emblematic of the overall atmosphere here is the neo-Santigold strut of “Flashbulb Eyes” (the camera-take-your-soul one) and the bulk of the startling, awesome “Here Comes the Night Time,” which slashes a pleasantly narcotizing cruise-ship swoon to ribbons with a pair of huge, pulverizing, rousingly bonkers street-drumming fusillades.