When Arcade Fire released The Suburbs to immense critical and commercial success, they cemented their position as the indie rock champions for the masses. Because of that, it’s difficult to listen to their new album, Reflektor, without tending towards comparison. To be sure, Reflektor is shinier, more jagged, and at times, more energetic. Overall, though, it’s a perfect example of the old adage: “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.”
One of the things that has always made Arcade Fire so exciting is the fact that they’ve managed to never be overwhelming, despite having a touring lineup of more than ten musicians and featuring such varied elements as a glockenspiel, piano, keyboard, harp, horns, double bass, accordion, mandolin, and the whole gamut of string instruments. On paper, it looks like a total mess. They’ve got everything but the kitchen sink. Somehow, though, it’s always managed to work.
Bucking that whole “too many cooks ruin the soup” mentality, Reflektor adds another vastly different element. Synths are alive and well on this album. Thanks to producer James Murphy, of the late LCD Soundsystem, Reflektor has a totally danceable feel to it, starting from the very first seconds of opening track “Reflektor”.
“Reflektor”, incidentally, is a gem of a track that sets up the album perfectly. Main vocalists Win Butler and Régine Chassagne know exactly how to play their vastly different voices off of each other, and their call-and-response lyrics are perfect examples of that, with her fragile soprano echoing – or reflecting – his soulful tenor.
Some of the album passes over into electronic territory, most notably “Porno”, but that’s not the only type of new vibe present. Reflektor is all over the place in terms of influences. “We Exist” dabbles in disco with a bass line that sounds like it’d be at home on a Michael Jackson or David Bowie album. “Normal Person” has a rollicking rockabilly vibe, and “You Already Know” sounds like something from a 1950s swing dancing competition. “Here Comes the Night Time”, with its hints of mariachi and jaunty synths, feels like it could be the second coming of Funeral’s “Haiti”. “Flashbulb Eyes” even has a hint of ska to it. To put it succinctly, Reflektor, specifically its first half, just makes you want to get up and move.
For all its energy, there are a few major cracks in its structure, and most of them show up in the second half. It’s disappointing to see Chassagne get pushed to the sidelines on this album, because so many of Arcade Fire’s finest moments, like “Haiti” and “Sprawl II” from The Suburbs, came from her taking center stage. More of her vocal charm would’ve done wonders to lighten the load of Butler’s heavyweight presence.
Another overarching fault that Reflektor suffers from is that it is just so damn long. Yes, obviously it’s a double album and therefore will be a good deal longer than usual. The majority of the songs clock in at over five minutes, but I’m not talking about the number of minutes. There are points in Reflektor that just drag on and on. While Arcade Fire has always tended towards longer songs, there have usually been more energetic, shorter tracks to break that up. Here, we don’t get much of that. The presence of so many long songs ends up feeling more self-indulgent than anything.
For the most part, Arcade Fire do a fantastic job of pacing their albums, but with Reflektor, the second half – the moody, somber opposite of the first half’s sparkle and exuberance – seems to go on forever. In terms of cohesiveness and overall atmosphere, the split makes complete and total sense, but in terms of the actual listening experience, the second half can feel like a bit of a slog. It’s easy to get bogged down in tracks like “Supersymmetry”, a dreamy, swirling, eleven-minute escape into shoegaze.
To be clear, it’s not that these songs are bad. Far from it, in fact. Two in particular – “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)” and “It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus)” are among the best on the album. As their titles suggest, they’re inspired by the two doomed Greek lovers, and the contrasting vocals of Butler and Chassagne are used to great effect. “Awful Sound” is mournful and pleading with lines like “But when I say I love you / Your silence covers me / Oh, Eurydice, it’s an awful sound.” It’s a love song, plain and simple, and a heartbreaking one at that. Its counterpart, “It’s Never Over”, is jagged and raw by comparison, but still just as moving. The last thirty seconds of the song might just be the most soulfully beautiful of the entire album.
It’s easy to see that Arcade Fire meant to put Reflektor forth as a transitional album, one that marks continued development into new territory. Unfortunately at this point, it seems the band is unsure of just where that new territory lies. By themselves, many of the tracks are resounding successes. It’s when they’re put together into one 75-minute experience that things begin to fall apart. With so many varying styles, there’s no real sense of balance, which is something that Arcade Fire has always excelled at. In the end, the new slick veneer that coats Reflektor doesn’t mesh well with the indie rock core of Arcade Fire’s essence.