After three acclaimed albums—Funeral (2004), Neon Bible (2007), and The Suburbs (2010)—the expectations for Arcade Fire’s fourth album were exceptionally high, particularly when it was announced this one would be a double album. On The Suburbs, Win Butler and Co. had fully found their stride, both in terms of musical innovation and lyrical maturity. Where would they go next? Well, naturally, to James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem to help produce the album. Who would have guessed? No one—which is a credit to Butler and the rest of the band. They love to morph stylistically and refuse to stay in one artistic place.
Win Butler’s musical vision is very expansive, evidently because he’s a devout musical historian. With this album the main influences seem to be early 80s European dance rock and, to a lesser degree, Caribbean and world music, a la the Clash’s Sandinista
album and the Jam’s The Gift
(there’s even a song on Reflektor
that dissolves into Jamaican street noise much like on Sandinista—which I consider a tip of the hat to the Clash), and there’s even a bit of Smiths influence (on “You Already Know”). Some reviewers referred to Stones and Beatles influences, but I don’t hear it. Others have suggested a Bowie influence, which makes more sense. But whatever the real influences, Reflektor
is a sonic treat, bursting with fresh ideas and creatively re-treaded ones.
Lyrically, the album revisits a number of themes the band has explored before but also goes in new directions. How many bands today seriously explore questions about personal identity and the afterlife and offer lamentations over youth obsessions with pornography, all the while drawing themes from ancient mythology and offering serious cultural critiques of the excesses of contemporary Western culture? Arcade Fire does all of this on Reflektor, and you’ve got to love their ingenuity and artistic security in doing so. Perhaps the main theme of the album—evident in the title—is the idea that this world is only a reflection of the next world, the afterlife. As on The Suburbs, the main theme is only directly dealt with on a few songs, but the other songs on the album deal with issues that are somehow consonant with the main concept. As usual for Arcade Fire, the album works as a coherent whole.
It’s been interesting to see the wide range of opinions about Reflektor
among reviewers. Some, such as this reviewer for Paste
, complain that the album is too sprawling and contains “filler.” Others, such as the writer of this Pitchfork
review, regard some of the same features as assets to an album that is, overall, a “triumph.” I agree with the latter assessment for several reasons. Not only because the songs themselves are well-crafted but because they work so well within the genres to which each gestures (e.g., the Caribbean “Here Comes the Night Time,” the electronica-infused “Awful Sound,” the dub-styled approach in “Flashbulb Eyes,” and the disco-funk of the title track).
Fans and music critics alike will, no doubt, continue to debate about Reflektor. But this is often the case with the most innovative albums (Bowie’s Low and Radiohead’s Kid A come to mind). Reflektor is a significant achievement and will eventually be regarded as such, even by those poor benighted souls who don’t quite get it now. In the meantime, Arcade Fire will no doubt continue to explore new musical vistas.