Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Arcade Fire's Reflektor shows creative thinking, a few rough patches

It may not seem like it, but this is the most pivotal moment for Arcade Fire since their inception. After snagging a huge upset win at the Grammys for their previous album, The Suburbs, the Montreal indie rock outfit have earned unprecedented license to do whatever they want in the eyes of many. The question is, after being vaunted so high into the music lexicon, do Arcade Fire continue to remain feisty underdogs, or do they become a part of the establishment themselves? The results on their fourth album, Reflektor, indicate that they remain a very forward thinking band.

It's hard to pigeonhole this album into one category or influence. They pull influence from more than a few places; there's more than  little bit of Beatle influence here and there, but they have melded lots of different techniques together to make something that sounds specifically like no one but them.Yet there are also flaws to be found on this double disc album. The tried and true adage about double albums usually containing a bit of fat may be worn into the ground, but it rings true in this case.

There are plenty of great tracks on Reflektor, and the good news is that nothing (well, almost nothing) feels self-indulgent, but among an obvious run of stellar tracks on Reflektor, there are more than a few that don't rise to the same standard of excellence, and some that just don't work at all. The band has attempted to focus on high minded concepts on this album, as evidenced by the Greek statue that adorns the album's cover. Tales of Greek lovers Eurydice and Orpheus, along with a fist pumping anthem dedicated to Joan of Arc, gives the album a historical, epic feel.

Finally, there's the fact that much of the material is a significant departure for Arcade Fire. You've no doubt heard that former LCD Soundsystem main man James Murphy worked with the band on this album, and his key contributions include injecting a much more danceable, electronic feel to the music, as well as giving it a heavy 80s vibe. The songs here lean much more in the direction of "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)" than, say, "Ready to Start." The dance pop aesthetic wears off after the first few tracks, yet even after there is a very clear and obvious texture to this album that makes it different from anything else in their catalog.

There are moments where they attempt pure rock and roll, and do it in style. "Normal People" sees frontman Win Butler desperate to avoid going through the motions that lead average citizens to turn out normal and boring. In order to help with this task, he's backed by a high pitched guitar lead that wouldn't sound out of place on a Bends era Radiohead record. "Here Comes the Night Time," meanwhile, dips into exotic, Caribbean themed territory they explored previously on "Haiti" from their debut Funeral, but they take it to new levels here. It lulls you into thinking it's going to make some statement on religion when Butler declares, "If there's no music in heaven, then what's it for?" Yet it ends as an ode to the joy of music, the same kind of lyrical thought process attempted by Pearl Jam on cuts like "Spin the Black Circle" and "Let the Records Play," yet done only in a way Arcade Fire could dream up of.

The tropical, Hawaiian beat combines with a Vampire Weekend inspired piano riff, and closes with some dramatic raging bongo drums. All these various elements pulled together, and pulled off so well gives this piece (as well as a couple others on the album) a feel similar to the Beatles' White Album. Elsewhere, "Flashbulb Eyes" opens with a spacey, ethereal 80s Japanese vibe and might have you thinking it's going to go down the same road The Vapors went on "Turning Japanese," but the tune stays subdued and even takes a sinister turn, as Butler muses on a camera that may have the ability to steal your soul.

As inventive as some of these pieces are musically and thematically, there are also some songs that seem be much quieter and take a backseat, while Butler expounds upon certain issues in quiet delicacy and majesty. "Porno," examines how selfishness and lack of regard damages relationships, and eventually drives people away. Butler makes his point eloquently, but the arrangements are pretty simple and safe, which makes this track a bit of a slog to get through unless you can connect with the theme on a personal level. Honors for the least effective track, however, probably have to go to "Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)," which meanders in solemn, acoustic territory far too long, before finally breaking out and sounding like a stoned hippie fest inspired by listening to Side 4 of The Beatles' White Album a little too long.

The main problem is that some of the songs have such inventive arrangements that make you marvel in awe at Arcade Fire's composition skills, that sometimes when you get to a song that's a little bit more simple or straightforward it sticks out like a sore thumb. There's nothing wrong with having variety, but it seems like they weren't able to take their concept and make it work for an entire 85 minute running length.

The opening title track, for example, showcases Arcade Fire's ability to hit that perfect note that sends chills down your spine. Whether it's Régine Chassagne's French vocals, the guitar riff that follows the chorus, the sense of urgency that builds as the song goes on, or the chilling closing piano and horns coda, I defy you to tell me there isn't something in this song that will do it for you. And then it gets followed up by a track like "We Exist," which sounds rather sterile, safe, and vapid in comparison. In general, Reflektor works really well and has enough tracks to be considered a good or even great album, but there are a few rough patches here and there.

Score: 87/100

Arcade Fire - The Suburbs album review 

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