Sometimes records just stump me.
I’m not sure why that is. I am usually able to form at least a few coherent thoughts about anything I hear, and a cogent argument after about three listens. But occasionally I’ll run across one that completely befuddles my critical faculties. I’ll listen, and I’ll listen again, and I’ll keep listening, but I won’t be able to muster up any kind of response that makes sense. I get stuck on details, and I second-guess myself. And then I find it impossible to write.
I’m not sure any album has given me as much trouble as Arcade Fire’s new opus, Reflektor. Released to a ridiculous shower of hype, the Montreal band’s fourth long-player is a two-disc affair (despite only running 75 minutes), and a complete shift in style. It’s been alternately hailed as a masterpiece and derided as a bloated, ridiculous ode to pretention. And the thing that’s been tripping me up more than any other is this: both of those statements are true.
The first time I heard Reflektor, I couldn’t stand it. The album felt simultaneously overstuffed and threadbare, full of songs that stretched on far longer than they were worth. The band worked with James Murphy, the guiding light of LCD Soundsystem, and his influence is everywhere – this is the most danceable Arcade Fire album ever, but the beats, I felt after that first listen, weren’t supporting any great songs. And a few of those songs were disasters – enough of them, actually, that I initially called this the band’s Kid A. (Yes, I know, some of you like Kid A. I’ve never managed it, though.)
If I’d just stopped there, I would have panned the album – with some regret, since I adored their last one, The Suburbs – and been done with it. Of course, I also would have been wrong. For some reason, I kept listening. Well, I say that, but I know the reason. Arcade Fire is one of the most intriguing bands of the last 20 years, and even though Reflektor has all the hallmarks of a superstar album – the one ode to excess every internationally famous band gets to make – I kept on listening because I have faith that Win Butler and company wouldn’t release something that didn’t speak to them on some level. I kept listening not to find out if I liked the songs, but to find out why the band liked them.
I’m sure you see where this is going. Over repeated listens, Reflektor began to take shape for me. I could understand its contours better, and appreciate the smaller moments that bring it to life. But this growing familiarity with the record didn’t translate into full-on love. It’s still a difficult, meandering, overblown thing, and though the songs I initially disliked are the ones that now get stuck in my head most often (“Here Comes the Night Time” especially), I still don’t like them. Everything has changed, and nothing has.
As you can imagine, I’ve struggled with how to write about this record. I toyed with several gimmicks, including writing each paragraph as a reflection of the last, illustrating dichotomy. I got about halfway through writing one review that purported to be a dialogue between me and my reflection. Really. I did that. It was absolutely terrible. And the irony, of course, is that I was using a pretentious formal experiment to criticize a band infamous for its pretensions.
So I finally realized that the best thing to do is just come clean. I’m still not sure what to say about Reflektor, but I’ve come this far being honest, so I need to own up. This album has me conflicted like few others I’ve ever encountered. I’ve been an Arcade Fire fan for years – I avoided Funeral until the hype died down, but ended up liking it, and I enjoyed both follow-ups (the insistent Neon Bible and the first-album-again-but-better epic The Suburbs) more. Until now, they haven’t made an album that has confused me the way this one does.
Reflektor is certainly self-consciously epic. It’s deliberately split into two discs – a groove-driven first volume and a more (ahem) reflective second. Murphy’s presence is more deeply felt on the first, but given repeat listens, his stamp is definitely on the second as well. The six-member band has always trafficked in big, sweeping drama, and here, they’ve tried to preserve that while adding a loose-limbed danceability. Sometimes it works – the opening title track is a monster, gliding forward on a shimmying Talking Heads beat and some dazzling saxophones by Colin Stetson, and even though it outstays its welcome at 7:34, it’s the album’s most successful melding of the old and new styles.
“We Exist” is similarly effective, with its “Billie Jean” bassline and its relentless buildup. “Joan of Arc,” which closes the first disc, pulls off the transformation as well – the song starts off with a few seconds of wild punk abandon, before settling into a slamming groove. The synth bass on the choruses is unstoppable, probably the record’s greatest single element. The song doesn’t actually have anything to say about Joan of Arc, but that’s all right. It’s the catchiest thing here, particularly when Regine Chassagne sings Joan’s name in French (“Jeanne d’Arc, ah ooh”), as is the law in Canada.
The rest of the first disc, though, is a total mess. “Flashbulb Eyes” may be the stupidest song this band has ever recorded. The entirety of the lyrics: “What if the camera really do take your soul? Oh no. Hit me with your flashbulb eyes, you know I got nothing to hide.” The music sounds like an experiment gone wrong – the beat is disconnected from everything, the goofy synths distract, the faux-reggae lilt grates. It’s nothing compared with “Here Comes the Night Time,” the apex of the band’s flirtation with Haitian music. A terribly simple song stretched to six and a half minutes, this thing threatens to fall apart every few seconds, and the instrumentation never seems to gel.
And yet… and yet… I keep humming it. The sort-of chorus, on which Butler repeats the title phrase as the synths pump in and the chords keep changing, gets stuck in my head like little else since that “The Fox” song. “Night Time” is constantly shifting from one odd moment to another – it’s truly a mess – but it’s probably the most intriguing tune on Reflektor. It’s my dilemma in miniature. It doesn’t work – it never really comes close to working – but it’s compelling nonetheless, and I keep listening to it, hoping it will cohere, fairly certain it never will.
The pair of straight-up rockers that follow seem oddly incongruous here, and neither one offers much of an argument for its own existence. It’s true that the sloppy lead guitar line on “Normal Person” is the first moment since “We Exist” that really brings things home, but the song is just average by Arcade Fire standards. (“Do you like rock ‘n’ roll music? ‘Cause I don’t know if I do,” Butler mutters, adding a touch of irony to what is a fairly typical rock song.) I like the sentiment – “Never ever met a normal person” – but I am not sure what the song is trying to do. “You Already Know” fares better, with its skipping beat, jaunty acoustic guitars and infectious chorus, but it doesn’t seem to belong on this album.
Then again, this first disc is all over the place. The more sedate second volume is quite a bit more consistent, even if that consistency sometimes feels like sleepwalking. It opens with “Here Comes the Night Time II,” a synth-and-strings interlude that effectively sets a dreamy tone. The two songs that follow do nothing to dispel that – both “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)” and “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)” float a few inches off the ground, making up for a lack of melody with an abundance of atmosphere. (Orpheus and Eurydice are figures in Greek myth, a doomed couple who fail to escape the underworld together. Their statues adorn the cover of Reflektor, and their songs are thematically resonant.)
And admittedly, it takes guts to title a song “Awful Sound,” and sequence another called “It’s Never Over” partway through your double album. Some days this diptych works for me, and I find myself singing along with the Flaming Lips-ish chorus of the former, and the lovely refrains of the latter. But some days, I want both of these six-minute songs to do more than they do. The same goes for “Porno,” an uncharacteristically dark and crawling synthesizer piece. I’m alternately drawn in by its sinister feel, and bored by its refusal to do much of anything at all.
It wouldn’t be exactly accurate to call “Afterlife” the first real sign of life on the second disc, but it is the most vital-sounding, and (perhaps coincidentally) the one most resembling old-school Arcade Fire. It takes its dance-rock foundation and builds on it, and then keeps building – the propulsive “scream and shout until we work it out” chorus is a delight. It’s such a big moment that it’s almost a shame when the album sinks into the 11-minute “Supersymmetry,” a sleepy, oscillating ballad that concludes with five and a half minutes of backwards noise.
And that’s a perfect example of the bloat that infects this record. Still, the sprawl is part of the point of making something like Reflektor, an album only those bands with stunning amounts of worldwide fame are allowed to create. It’s clear the band thought they were making their Achtung Baby. They even tried on a different identity, calling themselves The Reflektors and wearing giant false heads, but they seemed uncomfortable with the pretense. If anything, Arcade Fire is too earnest, too convinced of their own greatness to truly commit to something that all-encompassing.
That’s why Reflektor fails, ultimately. It’s messy and disjointed when it should be confidently striding through new terrain. It stumbles over discoveries when it should be celebrating them. It’s possible that this is a transitional record masquerading as a grand statement. But without the next few steps in the band’s evolution, we can’t know where they’re headed. This is the work we have, and it’s much less than the sum of its parts. Reflektor is a series of interesting moments that never add up to very much, despite its reach.
But you know what? I’m still listening to it. It hasn’t turned me away yet. I’m still fascinated by the fact that this band made these songs, and put them in this order. Reflektor is one of the most compelling records of the year, even if it’s not one of the best. I’m still not sure what to make of it, or why it’s drawn me in so much. It’s a gigantic misfire with moments of greatness swirled in. I can’t fault anyone who loves it, or anyone who hates it.
Nearly 2,000 words, and I still don’t know what to say. I’ll keep listening.
See you in line Tuesday morning.