The lines between “indie” and “mainstream” are visibly blurred for some bands when they have transcended to a certain level of popularity. Especially, when like Arcade Fire, you were the recipient of the surprising, but deserving Grammy, you being called “indie” is pretty much reduced to being just a label.
So, how does a band that once took so much pride in being the “outsider” in music circles deal with such fame and attention? Well, why not take the path a variety of great rock bands from the past took following unexpected popularity? Just like The Beatles’ did with The White Album, Nirvana did with In Utero and Radiohead with Kid A, Arcade Fire’s Reflektor is a litmus test for its fans with the sole purpose of alienating a majority of its fanbase just so they can experiment in the wildest manner.
On Reflektor, they team up with LCD Soundsystem maestro James Murphy as the producer and this choice proves critical as the album sounds almost like a big collaboration of influences between Arcade Fire and Murphy. On paper, Reflektor should be a disaster as it almost completely abandons their successful formula and undertakes ambitious attempts of looking back at almost every great “art rock” albums of the past particularly Talking Heads’ Remain in Light and David Bowie’s Low by tracks which are rooted in afro-beat and Caribbean downtempo with strong disco elements.
Genre: (unironically) Indie Rock
The album begins with its title track, which is arguably its most accessible, that’s rooted with an intense disco-groove with timed bursts of guitar amid the alternating vocals of the front vocalist duo of Win Butler and Regine Chassagne. It’s a multi-segmented track with a heavy bass sax section and a rhythm key section which builds in wonderful ways and leaves behind a lot of promise for the rest of the album. David Bowie makes a brief appearance in one of the verses of this track as well.
This is followed by We Exist, which has a strong New Wave feel right from heavy stoccato bass to its delayed chorus that despite its relative lack of imagination manages to get your feet tapping. Flashbulb Eyes, a bizarre track which literally takes a trip back to the Doors- Velvet Underground era with its thick instrumentation, picked guitar strings and swooping electronics.
It eventually leads into an interesting segment of the album where you almost get a feeling they’re imitating the fake live performance of The Beatles’ Sgt.Pepper, first with the extremely catchy Here Comes the Night Time which with its chilled-out dance-hall vibes and a simple but infectious key sequence builds and settles in intensity before finally letting loose into a storm of swirling guitars as it builds up the carnival feel which The Beatles’ seminal album did almost 5 decades ago.
With a short faux soundcheck,Reflektor’s most ironically tongue-in-cheek track begins. Normal Person is a blatant pick at their own fans as Win sings about the fallacies of being a “normal person” in this day & age and the inherent pretention of the “rock & roll” genre as both the track and Win’s vocals sound typical of a mid-tempo rock & roll song. It falls flat lyrically as it’s too on-the-nose and sandwiched between the New-Wave & dance-hall tracks, it feels out of place, although I guess that was its’ purpose after all.
You Already Know has chill disco vibes from the run-down 70s bars which Daft Punk had tried bringing back into mainstream consciousness a few months back and here Arcade Fire make an attempt of their own. It’s not as successful as you’d expect as it’s a fairly average track that neither gets the groovy vibe of the genre nor goes out of its way to grab your attention.
Joan of Arc which ends the first-disc starts with a heavy punk intro before eventually slowing down into a mid-tempo jam where Win’s emotive vocals keep the song driving with Regine’s neatly-timed “Jeanne D’Arc” complementing. There’s a rather underwhelming French verse from Regine in the middle of the song which doesn’t really benefit the track in any special way. The outro has a very somber string section which coupled with Regine’s vocals in the background give it a solid 80s feel.
The second disc begins with a brief interlude “Here Comes the Night Time Part II” which sounds like its’ taken off directly from their previous album,The Suburbs due to its distinct lack of any of the diverse influences which make Reflektor.
Thankfully, this underwhelming phase of Reflektor leads into its arguably strongest string of tracks starting with the dual ballad of Greek gods which with “Awful Sound(Oh Eurydice)” first goes into the Talking Heads territory with bongo beats and a strong rhythm bass replacing any electronic beat. An organic guitar gently guides the track that bursts into a heady The Cure-esque explosion of space-synths before actually going into a proper chorus. It’s a poignant track which sees the band finally growing comfortable with the new clothes they’re wearing.
This comes to light in the next track which is possibly the best and most confident track of Reflektor as the best of Arcade Fire merges with that of Murphy. On “It’s Never Over(Hey Orpheus)” over a poignant dance-hall intro before it goes into almost a brief guitar riff that sounds like an emotive release for the band. All while this is happening, Murphy’s trademark chaotic and energetic production reminiscent of LCD Soundsystem’s “Get Innocuous” slips into the song with fractured beats and bass which perfectly provide a strong structure to the song’s interweaving vocals of Win and Regine. Here, Arcade Fire bring their own past and almost effortlessly transform it into the direction they have been seeking on their album. Even the outro verse, which settles down into an intimate exchange of words between Win & Regine sounds like the most honest exchange of emotions in an album that seems to be built on the premise of having to bear the burden of a diverse history of being the “rock & roll band” of your era.
From here, Arcade Fire never really look back. The funky Porno may fall flat lyrically but musically it’s a delight to listen with its snapping fingers, one-key rhythm even if it goes on longer by a few minutes than it should have. The ambitious Afterlife almost seems like it is a Beatles’ homage wrapped in a single 5-minute track as it tries covering all aspects of Beatles music be it the choppy beat that is reminiscent of The White Album’s Revolution 9 or the grim or the interchanging of vocals up-front between Win and Regine which sound like Lennon-McCartney atleast stylistically. The tracks grows more ambitious as it subtly blooms into a somber-toned chorus which despite its vibe is strangely uplifting.
The odd track out of the entire bunch is the 11-minute experimental closer Supersymmetry which contains oddly fragmented loops of what seems like unfinished tracks over whispering vocals. Obviously, it stretches on for too long and instead of ending the album on a high, it ends up being anti-climatic.
Like Nirvana did with In Utero, their choice of a producer in Steve Albini defined their intentions, Arcade Fire’s choice with James Murphy is telling as his influence of disco and New-Wave can be clearly seen on many tracks here, some more than the others. Even for the band, Reflektor is an incredibly ambitious and admittedly self-indulgent attempt when they could have rested on their laurels after a Grammy win and continued their winning formula. They stumble over a lot of places here which is bound to happen when you try to pay homage to a specific branch of the five-decade history of rock and Reflektor has its fair share of underwhelming, average tracks.
But when the diverse influences fall into place with Arcade Fire’s love for the grandiose and Murphy’s trademark chaotic production, Reflektor can be a delight to listen to. Just be prepared to have a lot of Arcade Fire fans give up on the band after this. But maybe like Nirvana and Radiohead before them, that is what the band wanted. To do whatever they wished to, if only to reaffirm their “outsider” status.
The irony is they are no longer an outsider. Whether they like it or not, they are a chart-topping band that’s at the forefront of the indie rock movement.
Highlights: (in order of their quality): It’s Never Over(Hey Orpheus), Reflektor, Afterlife, We Exist, Here Comes the Night Time
Score: 3.5 out of 5