My review of the the new ARCADE FIRE album REFLEKTOR over at GLASTONBURY TO PARIS:
“That which has been is what will be. That which is done is what will be done. And there is nothing new under the sun…” So wrote the unidentifiable author of Ecclesiastes around the year 500 BC. Now, two and a half millennia later, Arcade Fire have returned with an album centred around that same concept. Not that Win Butler and co are strangers to the idea of constructing albums harnessed to overarching themes; they’ve practically made a career out of it… Funeral dealt with the fallout from death and the failure of parents, Neon Bible contained ruminations on the nature of control and religion, whilst The Suburbs’ concern was the search for the notion of home in an ever-shrinking world.
Reflektor‘s chief preoccupation is that, in our GIF-saturated technology-driven times, all art – especially in its digital form – is just a reflection; a pale echo of a purer sound. This message couldn’t be more relevant in this “reflective age” of retweets, instagram photo sharing, and viral media.
The album is set against the backdrop of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, though the characters are reimagined in a contemporary rock setting, and voiced by Butler and Chassagne. As a myth, the Orpheus and Eurydice story has proved fertile ground for cultural mining- by Salman Rushdie in his 1999 rock opus The Ground Beneath Her Feet, and by Marcel Camus in his 1959 Oscar-winning film Black Orpheus. The legend’s main elements concern Orpheus’s descent into the Underworld, and – as a master of the lyre – his status as the world’s foremost musician and poet. This provides ample narrative scope for Refletkor’s principal themes: the life-affirming power of music, and man’s self-limiting obsesssion with the afterlife.
On LP number four, Arcade Fire’s influences are apparent more than on any of their previous albums, a deliberate conceit to showcase Reflektor’s premise that all art is but a mirror image – that history is cyclical; a wheel – though one that pivots on mankind’s unflinching desire to succumb to the beat and to dance. ‘We Exist’ recalls Michael Jackson’s Thriller-era four-to-the-floor beat, ‘Normal Person’ channels Exile-esque Rolling Stones, whilst the epic fade-out coda of ‘Awful Sound’ screams White Album Beatles. Elsewhere, we hear echoes of The Smiths (‘You Already Know’), TV On The Radio (‘It’s Never Over’) and New Order (‘Afterlife’). Orpheus, in this reforged myth, has replaced his love of the lyre with a penchant for the electric guitar and an array of bass synthesisers.
The album has several moments during which it conveys the notion of history as a shifting tide retreating back and forth, with continuous reconstruction of earlier works. “Everything that goes away/ Will be returned somehow” Butler laments on ‘Joan Of Arc’. And then there’s the title track, boasting a clever self-referential moment with its garbled sample of the opening piano notes from Funeral track ‘Tunnels’.
Sonically, Reflektor is nothing short of glorious – as melodically rich as it is thematically dense, though the melodies are more subtly anthemic and build gradually. It’s expansive, and epic in scope, stretched out across two discs, and coming in at just shy of 90 minutes. The tracks are textured and the arrangements on show are densely produced. On the surface it might seem an obtuse critical response to label the early indifferent reviews of the album misguided, but there’s a sense that these evaluations surfaced after only minimal exposure to the album. Reflektor though, is a complicated and sometimes overwhelming and overpowering beast. Only after multiple play-throughs can you begin to unravel its rich treasure trove of well-concealed splendours.
The pathway that the band take after their near-perfect 2010 masterpiece The Suburbs is the one they explored on 2011 single ‘Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)’ – the fusion and intermingling of the organic and electronic. To some extent their decision echoes that of Kanye West and Thom Yorke’s thought process post ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ and ‘OK Computer’ – “where the hell do we go from here?” The development on this LP though feels more akin to natural evolution, as opposed to a desire for an out-and-out creative reboot.
The sprawling, swirling, gradually escalating disco-infused monster of a title track should serve as a litmus test for how you’ll feel about the LP as a whole, and it’s this track which betrays ex-LCD Soundsystem James Murphy’s production duties more than any other. It forms part of a trilogy of songs along with ‘Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)’ and ‘It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)’, which deal with the star-crossed lovers, and the trials and tribulations that their love endures “in the reflective age”. Elsewhere Murphy’s influence also looms large: placing more emphasis on the rhythm section of the band, and an incorporation of Caribbean motifs into the music.
‘Awful Sound’ marries Haitian rhythms to a tribal, almost-funereal drumbeat, before adding sweeping strings and swelling instrumentation. Its outro cleverly mirrors the intro of the title song: “We know there’s a price to pay/ For love in the reflective age/ I met you up upon a stage/ Our love in a reflective age…” ‘It’s Never Over’ shimmies in amidst a haze of star-cradling synths and pulses of driving bass, before recounting the journey of the fated lovers on their ascent from the Underworld. It’s a stunning track, comprising jaw-dropping tempo changes and showcasing staggering vocal interplay between Butler and Chassagne.
Other highlights, and there are many, include the jagged shimmering synthscape and cathartic surge of ‘Afterlife’; the simultaneously heart-warming and heart-rending refrain of ‘Here Comes The Night Time II’; and the glam-rock bounce of ‘Joan Of Arc’. It’s a record that’s impossible not to dance to, which is essential, given that Reflektor soundtracks the war between living in the moment, and the preoccupation with the afterlife that prevents us from doing so. It’s telling then, for an album that’s almost Dionysian in its dedication to the here-and-now, that the unbearable sound that Orpheus “hears” on ‘Awful Sound’ is actually silence (“When I say I love you/ Your silence covers me/ Oh, Eurydice – it’s an awful sound…”) Absence of sound and music is anathema to the Reflektor worldview: ”If there’s no music up in heaven, then what’s it for?” Butler asks on ‘Here Comes The Night’, before his savage indictment of Christian missionaries in Haiti: “If you’re looking for Hell, just try looking inside…”
It’s early to judge where exactly Reflektor will sit in the framework of Arcade Fire’s entire canon, but the early signs are positive: that first listen plants seeds that are likely to blossom into a fully-fledged romance. It’s often as intoxicating as it is intricate, and as beautiful as it is bold; a mythic love-letter to surrendering to the moment. Arcade’s Fire’s fourth LP is music without boundaries, further evidence that – in the “reflective age” – sometimes the best artistic response to widespread critical acclaim is mutation. Not for the first time, Arcade Fire look like the most important band in the world.(9 / 10)