October 30, 2013

Test Spins: Arcade Fire, Reflektor

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Hype is a funny thing, isn’t it? Just about every highly anticipated release — be it from Radiohead, Kanye West, Daft Punk or someone else — incites a cycle of immense or unqualified praise, cynical backlash and the kind of partisan bickering that would make Ted Cruz blush. Arcade Fire’s latest release, Reflektor, has proved no exception to this rule, and it seems this is exactly what Win Butler and his merry band of fools wanted. From utilizing controversial viral marketing techniques to a creating a celebrity-filled mini-documentary, Arcade Fire has delighted in stoking the bonfire of anticipation surrounding the new album and in provoking those critical of its work to reach for their pitchforks.

Thankfully, the attention the group has garnered for its follow-up to 2010’s Grammy-award winning LP, The Suburbs, is more than justified. Gleeful and self-aware, the record represents an important shift for a band known for meditations on memory, innocence and hope that tend to avoid irony in favor of honest emotional introspection. Produced by James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem fame and featuring two Haitian percussionists alongside an already-sizable group, this record reveals an Arcade Fire that can get loose, get loud and have some fun.

In many ways, though, Reflektor is more an evolution than a revolution: “We Exist”’s tongue-in-cheek musical reference to “Billie Jean” and a brief clip of Jonathan Ross featured in “Normal Person” still exist beside weighty themes — religion, love, individuality and alienation in a technological age — much as past releases have dealt with suburban isolation, the vacuity of religion and the like. Here, however, the band has learned an important lesson: Even an album that addresses serious ideas does not need to sound like it’s taking itself too seriously.

The album opens with a bang, in the form of its eponymous first single, “Reflektor.” It is a pulsing, polyrhythmic introduction to the “new Arcade Fire,” as well as to a major theme of the album: love in a “reflective age” where narcissism and vacuity reign over true emotional depth. “Reflektor” is among the album’s strongest cuts, with a potent blend of Remain in Light-era Talking Heads and Bowie glam, the latter of whom is featured in the track’s bridge. It also hints at the album’s entirely separate influences — namely, afrobeat, Jamaican voodoo and the lively, carnival rhythms of Haiti. Thematically, Butler takes aim at the ambiguous relationship we have with technology. At a particularly powerful point, he sings, “The signals we send are deflected again/We’re so connected, but are we even friends?”, an idea that is echoed by the track’s amalgamation of musical influences. Love and music may both be timeless, but, as illustrated by the track’s uneasy blend of synth-heavy disco, afrobeat and modern electronic music, technology distorts and disorients each.

As the first disc of this massive double-album progresses, intense themes permeate each track, but the band maintains its newfound and entirely refreshing irreverency. “We Exist” follows characters “going nowhere,” under the microscope of their peers (Facebook, anyone?) who are  trying merely, as the title hints, to exist; all the while, the track employs Michael Jackson’s famous bassline. Later, “Here Comes the Night Time” gives us a mix of peppy Haitian rhythms and relaxed, down-tempo dub, which, as the title implies, surrounds death, pain and sadness. The first half closes with one of Arcade Fire’s finest and most rousing efforts yet, “Joan of Arc.” It starts at breakneck pace, with thrashing guitars and punk-rock drums, but quickly settles into a tense and unbelievably catchy groove. On the track, Butler seems to anticipate his critics when he sings, “First they love you, then they kill you, then they love you again.” Like the track’s famed title-woman, Butler knows that in life, as in music, one day you’re revered and the next day you’re reviled. In its entirety, the first half represents a more radically new direction than the second half.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: The airy, dreamlike atmosphere of the Reflektor’s second disc is punctured by moments of intensity that take your breath away — particularly on “It’s Never Over” — and Butler’s lyrical prowess shines as he poignantly addresses love, loss and the afterlife.

As the final track, “Supersymmetry,” brings Reflektor to a close, the band pulls a Sgt. Pepper’s by including almost five minutes silence punctuated by contemplative synth textures and electronic feedback. This reference is blasphemous, but of course, it is meant to be. Reflektor is a proud and bombastic attempt to voice the concerns of a lost generation, and against all odds, it largely succeeds. Sonically, rhythmically and lyrically, Reflektor is a satisfying and truly ambitious breath of fresh air.