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Arcade Fire Sharpen Their Edges on the Sprawling, Frequently Awesome ‘Reflektor’

Arcade Fire (photo by Guy Aroch)
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: October 29, 2013
Label: Merge

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.

That’s the second genuinely great song here: The anomalous near-butt-rock thrasher “Normal Person” is the third, with a screeching chorus riff so clipped and wonky it sounds like an Arcade Fire Shreds parody of itself. It’s perfect. But that tune’s about it, if you prefer these guys in sold-your-turntables-and-bought-guitars Funeral mode. Never one to miss a chance to over-explain himself, Butler kicks off the track murmuring, “Do you like rock’n’roll music? Cause I don’t knooooow if I do.”

Butler’s shortcomings as a lyricist and general thesis-deliverer — didactic, and a little cliché-driven in the on-your-knees-begging-please sense — are most often mercifully buried in the sumptuous chaos here. “Reflektor” threatened a whole album of “now we’re staring at a screen” anti-technology screeds a la Jonathan Franzen or that new Dave Eggers book about outlandishly evil social-media pushers. “We’re so connected / But are we even friends?” is just a very Win line, 20 percent clever and 80 percent preachy, but aside from the queasy, Weeknd-style moping camgirl dirge “Porno,” he mostly drops it. The Talking Heads parallels here are obvious, the nod to Remain in Light‘s globally minded mental and physical expansion — down to the coterie of Haitian percussionists now beefing up Arcade Fire’s rhythm section live — and Butler verbally echoes the Heads’ majestic bored-by-the-afterlife ballad “Heaven” twice: “If this is heaven, I don’t know what it’s for / If I can’t find you there, I don’t care,” bolstered a couple tracks later by, “If there’s no music up in heaven, then what’s it for?”

What’s missing here is a worthy spotlight for his musical/marital better half, Régine Chassagne — Reflektor lacks a showstopper in the vein of “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” or, come to think of it, Funeral‘s “Haiti.” (Odd on this album, especially, given that she was born there.) She settles for redeeming much of the meandering second half. To largely cede the lead vocals on a turgid synth-pop song called “Joan of Arc” to a dude reeks of mansplaining, but she bails out her husband with some eerie harmonies and a few well-placed threats, mostly in French. Soon thereafter, she deepens if not lightens the pathos of “Porno” and the Greek tragedy suite “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)” b/w “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)”; the latter fades out on a skittering digital heartbeat and Butler and Chassagne’s wounded, intertwined voices, a rare moment of hushed intimacy from a band born to overwhelm.

Arcade Fire’s last album, 2010’s shock Grammy victor The Suburbs, had two genuinely great songs: preachy but deeply affecting nobody-writes-letters-anymore lament “We Used to Wait” and Chassagne’s digital bubbler “Sprawl II.” Reflektor flirts with the former’s elegant hand-wringing but builds its foundations on the latter’s joyous, near-danceable melancholy. Good idea. And if you can’t quite dance to it yourself, you can at least watch the fictionalized citizens of Rio de Janeiro in a nearly 45-year-old movie inadvertently dance to it. That’s an odd, brash, sociologically loaded experience, but with good enough headphones you come to prefer this band’s Big Ideas and Grand Gestures to almost anyone else’s.