Who is Arcade Fire?
By now, the baffled, prime-time audience that made this question a hilarious meme should have a satisfactory answer: They’re the Canadian indie rock band who scooped up an Album of the Year Grammy out of the hands of Eminem, Katy Perry and Lady Gaga (and Lady Antebellum, but nobody knows who they are, either). But the question of who Arcade Fire really is gets at some bigger issues of identity. Are they the group of melancholy dreamers who chose to deal with life’s cruel trivialities by masking them in childlike wonder? Are they the cynics who took aim at religion and war through Springsteen-like rock anthems? Or are they the (again) melancholy grown-ups who shed their childlike wonder for a conceptual sepia-dyed slideshow through the drab drudgery of suburban living?
On fourth album Reflektor, Arcade Fire is none of these and all of these. Diving into the lengthy, two-disc album for the first time, there’s some sensory overload happening. Disco beats, calypso, noise, electronics, Greek dramas and scratchy guitar solos — it’s a lot to take in one sitting, and at first listen, it seems like too much. But Arcade Fire have always had a tendency to do things on a grand scale. Their debut album, Funeral, didn’t sound like a scrappy band with some good ideas and a low budget so much as U2 on vintage instruments — heroism with humility. With Reflektor, that much hasn’t changed, but they’re taking that idea and stretching it to incorporate an even broader range of aesthetic variations.
Make no mistake — Reflektor is an ambitious album. With double albums, it comes with the territory. The band cover a lot of ground, make a lot of stylistic left turns, and take a lot of intriguing risks, a great deal of which pay off handsomely. Longtime collaborator Owen Pallett provides string accompaniment, Colin Stetson adds horn arrangements, and LCD Soundsystem maestro James Murphy is behind the boards here, lending the album’s more dazzling moments a welcome sprinkling of disco sheen. On paper, the mixture of hedonistic frivolity and the band’s earnestness seems a curious, if not outright mismatched fit, but it’s actually the thing that most makes Reflektor so fascinating, and for that matter, powerful. Arcade Fire always had something to say, but they’ve upgraded their messaging system to something contemporary and flashy — dare I say sexy.
Where The Suburbs was a 63-minute album that didn’t always feel like it lived up to its ambition, Reflektor makes up for that by playing it less cautious. Gone is the Instagram-style picture of a driveway, replaced with a shiny image depicting Rodin’s “Orpheus and Eurydice,” whose tragic ancient Romeo-and-Juliet story courses through the album’s 13 tracks. And even at the album’s most sprawling and indulgent, like the luxurious title track, it lends the album a certain gravitas. At the heart of the album is the idea of reflections and counterparts, which draw a parallel to the Orpheus/Eurydice myth. On “Reflektor,” Butler draws inspiration from their tragedy, echoing Orpheus’ grief as he sings, “If this is heaven/ I don’t know what it’s for/ if I can’t find you there/ I don’t care.” And amid the pulsing electronics, congas and dance beats, a sense of melancholy and drama overtakes the party — the idea of reflections and mirrors not just representing an idea of completion or symmetry, but a metaphor for the afterlife: “Will I see you on the other side?”
But then again, nothing signifies decadence and luxury like Greek design, and Reflektor knocks down the out-of-the-box tract-home décor for some Ionic columns and a reflecting pool. “We Exist” feels a bit more like classic Arcade Fire than the title track, but it grooves with a sexy, Roxy Music cool, and an equally massive arrangement complete with a lush set of strings. “Flashbulb Eyes” echoes the band’s time spent in Jamaica recording the album, its deep dub-influenced bassline and effects-heavy treatment representing one of the most dramatic shifts away from any kind of standard Arcade Fire sound. And “Here Comes the Night Time,” the first of two corresponding pieces, eases into a calypso rhythm that benefits from a comfortable amount of space.
The moments in which the band shakes off the glittery disco veneer can be equally mesmerizing. With some “Takin’ Care of Business” piano plinks and some raw squeals of guitar, “Normal Person” kicks out a serious rock jam. And though finds its sonic inspiration a careful distance from the trio of opening art-pop bangers, thematically, the thread of reflection and counterparts continues as Butler sings, “You’re just the same as me.” The first of two tracks that reference Eurydice and Orpheus by name, “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)” is reminiscent of the lush space rock of Radiohead’s OK Computer, but instead of meditating on technology and communication (though that definitely sneaks into the album on the whole), Butler’s narrator is in mourning: “I met you up upon a stage, our love in a reflective age/ Oh no, now you’re gone.” And its counterpart, “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)” finds a happy medium between the group’s U2-style art-rock drama and Murphy’s post-punk-funk influence. Taking the idea of reflection even further, here Regine Chassagne takes on the role of Eurydice, responding to Butler, “We stood beside/ A frozen sea/ I saw you out/ In front of me/ Reflected light/ A hollow moon/ Oh Orpheus/ Its over too soon.”
As thematically consistent and overflowing with ideas as Reflektor is, it’s not without some bloat, namely in the aimless ambience that closes out final track “Supersymmetry,” or in the extra minute here and there that could have been trimmed from a few tracks (though it’s got a long way to go until it offends as grossly as The 20/20 Experience on that front). But if you’re going to go big, as Arcade Fire have done here, then a splice here or there just amounts to nickel and diming. Reflektor is a big album, even an overwhelming one at times, but Arcade Fire promised us nothing less. Through their NBC special, webcam-enabled video, Twitter-fan marketing and guerilla stencil campaign, everything about Reflektor indicated that its scope was going to far outdistance its predecessors. In his recent article about Radiohead’s In Rainbows, Treble’s Chris Karman explored the idea of a public event, suggesting that such ideas had already begun to die out more than a decade ago. But for the first time in a few years at least, here is evidence that the Album Event lives on. Love Reflektor or hate it — and I’m clearly among the former, here — fewer among us will be asking, “Who is Arcade Fire?”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.