The experience of the advance “listening session” is an unnatural way to hear an album, especially for the first time: You’ve got one chance to conjure all kinds of deep thoughts and definitive judgments about a body of work people have usually labored over for years. Unlike a film screening, only your sense of hearing is engaged, and because music tends to conjure a sense of place, you can end up envisioning the walls of a conference room and the blank stares of the other people at the session every time you hear certain songs for years afterward. And although the listening session for Arcade Fire’s fourth LP Reflektor, due October 29 on Merge Records, was held at New York’s famed Electric Lady Studios in a lovely dimmed room with a pair of kick-ass speakers, this knee-jerk pre-reviewer freely admits to many shortcomings in the following due to the above factors.
1. REFLEKTOR SOUNDS LIKE ARCADE FIRE, BUT THEY’RE A WHOLE NEW BAND.
That majestic, cinematic, anthemic sound is still there but it’s subtler, and the group’s confidence, swing, and swagger have grown by leaps and bounds. They’ve also finally learned how to put some air in their music: The album veers masterfully from spare to sprawling (and vice versa) in an instant.
2. THE DANCEY THING PRETTY MUCH GOES AWAY AFTER THE FIRST COUPLE OF SONGS…
… Although the emphasis on rhythm doesn’t. The album opens with the by-now-well-known title track, which is essentially a several-minute-long “extended dance remix” of a three-and-a-half minute song, like on the countless 1980s-era 12-inch singles that co-producer James Murphy spins when he DJs. (He probably even knows that the early Soft Cell and Duran Duran 12-inch remixes destroy the album versions.) And while we’re on that topic, the bassline of the second track, “We Exist” (the disco-y second song performed on the Arcade Fire in Here Comes the Night Time program that followed Saturday Night Live last weekend) is “Like a Virgin” grafted onto “Billie Jean.”
3. THIS ALBUM ESTABLISHES JAMES MURPHY AS A MAJOR PRODUCER.
Obviously he’s a celebrated DJ and a remixer and of course LCD Soundsystem’s frontal lobe. But he’s also now a Rick Rubin-style avatar who highlights and extracts the best from both the songs and the musicians, with a staggering attention to detail and sense of dynamics and especially rhythm. This is not to take credit away from the band and longtime co-producer Markus Dravs or the multiple engineers and mixers. The production credits confusingly read “Produced by Arcade Fire and [line break] James Murphy (except for tracks 3, 8) [line break] Markus Dravs (except for tracks 3, 8, 10, 11, 13),” but Murphy’s touch is most obvious.
4. IT’S STILL REALLY HARD TO UNDERSTAND THE LYRICS.
Win Butler’s voice, especially when paired with that of bandmate/wife Regine Chassagne (which is often), tends to blend in with the trebly instruments, making the clear statements stand out that much more: “Never met a normal person…” “It’s over too soon…”
5. WE’RE NOT SURE WHAT’S UP WITH THE ORPHEUS AND EURYDICE REFERENCES.
The album’s cover is Auguste Rodin’s sculpture of Orpheus and Eurydice, and two back-to-back songs on side two are called “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)” and “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus).” The reference of course is to the Greek myth regarding the gifted musician who unsuccessfully attempted to rescue his dead wife from the Underworld. And we’re definitely not going to speculate on any connection with the band’s married lead singers…
6. JAMES MURPHY HELPED THE BAND FIND THEIR BOTTOM END.
The souped-up drums and bass give the band a stronger foundation and swagger than their more skittery past work. The six Haitian percussionists featured on the album definitely played a role, but drummer Jeremy Gara has seriously stepped up his game.
7. THE VOICE OF JOAN OF ARC ON “JOAN OF ARC” MAY ACTUALLY BE CHASSAGNE SPEAKING THROUGH A VOCODER.
So there’s that.
8. THE STRINGS ARE PRESENT BUT MUCH LESS PROMINENT THAN BEFORE.
Arcade Fire are now a sextet, with Sarah Neufeld relegated to a full-time supporting/touring role similar to that of fellow violinist Owen Pallette.
9. IT’S A REAL ALBUM WITH A CLEAR SIDE ONE AND SIDE TWO.
… And not just because the album is divided into two separate discs (even though it would fit on one). Disc two begins with a wink to older audiences in the form of an ascending electronic beepy sound that opens (and, in reverse sequence, closes) pre-recorded cassettes of a certain era; the music on disco two starts with a brief reprise of a song that appears earlier on the album. It’s also sequenced like a real album, with lots of connective tissue between the songs: tracks merged together or ending abruptly, fake applause or odd noises or dialogue. It feels like a journey. And like too many albums, it ends with several pointless minutes of seemingly random noises, in this case blurps and orchestral washes. (Yes, this entry is deliberately “number 9… number 9… number 9…”)
10. FORGET VINYL AND ESPECIALLY DOWNLOADS: YOU NEED TO HEAR IT ON CD BECAUSE IT SOUNDS FUCKING AMAZING.
People love vinyl for its sonic warmth and there’s a lot to be said for that. But for detail and definition, you still can’t beat a CD. The sheer variety of sounds on the album, and the amount of time and care put into crafting the songs, are remarkable. “Awful Sound” has such intricate detail that it’s almost like hearing music in 3D: strings up here and percussion back there and layered keyboard texture in the middle.
11. THE ALBUM WILL PROBABLY ENABLE MERGE RECORDS TO BUY A LOT MORE REAL ESTATE IN DOWNTOWN DURHAM, NORTH CAROLINA.
It might be Merge and Superchunk’s town, but Arcade Fire deserve a statue there as well.
12. JOIN US IN PRAYER THAT REFLEKTOR DOES NOT TURN ARCADE FIRE INTO U2… ANY MORE THAN THEY ALREADY ARE.
Because it could. Reflektor is like Mad Men or a Mercedes or Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom: whether or not you like it, the quality of the art and the scale of the accomplishment are undeniable.
Arcade Fire’s Reflektor track list:
2. “We Exist”
3. “Flashbulb Eyes”
4. “Here Comes the Night Time”
5. “Normal Person”
6. “You Already Know”
7. “Joan of Arc”
1. “Here Comes the Night Time II”
2. “Awful Sound (Oh Erydice)”
3. “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)”