NOTE: My distinguished former journalism colleague Lloyd J. Nelson III requested I review Arcade Fire’s latest album as a means, I believe, to start an argument. With this review I (gleefully) oblige his request. Let the disagreements begin!
Death need not be depressing. It can spark dance parties. I’ve seen it happen. In my hometown of New Orleans it’s called a second line. People celebrate the departed with brass instruments and umbrellas and colorful outfits. And they shake their sorrow away. Which is the kind of catharsis through movement I hoped the Grammy Award-winning rock act Arcade Fire’s fourth LP, the double album Reflektor, would achieve when I learned LCD Soundsystem ringleader James Murphy produced its lion’s share.
The second line I envisioned never quite took hold on Reflektor, released on Oct. 29 on Merge Records. In its place the Montreal-based ensemble elected to weave its big tent topics (death, alienation, innocence lost, etc.) with a noirish, slow-burning take on dance music. The band has cited trips to Haiti as a turning point in this record’s creation. Yet, the Haiti depicted is one not quite ready to slip on its dancing shoes, with the notable exception of the intro and outro for “Here Comes The Night Time Pt. 1″.
The groove might have shifted from past outings but Arcade Fire is too consumed, some would say engulfed, by the big questions – life, death, afterlife, for which one of the songs here is named – to spark a full-on dance party. That’s OK. The 14 songs that inhabit Reflektor’s 85-minute running time reveal a plethora of a-ha moments that, when taken in sum, make this one of the year’s best records. It also stands shoulder to shoulder with the band’s previous work – revelatory debut Funeral, its strong follow-up Neon Bible, and third album Suburbs, which won a Grammy for Best Album of the Year.
Reflektor’s title track twists and turns, shimmies and sashays, while pondering the purpose of Heaven and relationships in the social media age. Its seven minutes feels like half that, never losing its vitality along the way. “We Exist” is more understated but its urgency burns bright like a torch in the dead of night. Frontman Win Butler and his wife Regine Chassagne share vocals, decrying the trappings of fame. “Here Comes The Night Time Pt. 1″ locks into a peaceful sway, back and forth like a palm tree’s leaves, after a chaotic bolt from the starting gates. The peace found in the music masks the unrest in Butler’s soul. He still hasn’t found what he’s looking for, to borrow a phrase from U2’s Bono. The words of missionaries, the thought of Heaven, it is all one confusing jumble. “When you look in the sky, just try looking inside,” Butler resolves. “God knows what you might find.”
In the buildup to Reflektor’s release music writers zeroed in on Butler’s seeming ambivalence toward rock music on “Normal Person”. The remark should be taken with a grain of salt, given how that song features a majestic, squalling guitar riff in the chorus that feels like something one would hear on a classic rock station in the middle of the day. “You Already Know” follows with a guitar line that at first glance recalls Johnny Marr circa The Queen Is Dead-era The Smiths. The more the Arcade Fire change, the more they feel the same. And that’s not a bad thing.
Album No. 2, if you will, starts with what sounds like a seance for the dead on “Here Comes The Night Time Pt. II”. It finishes with a gorgeous reflection on death that harkens back to the band’s elegiac Funeral days, in a thematic sense at least. “I know you’re living in my mind/It’s not the same as you being alive,” Butler reflects somberly on “Supersymmetry”. The closing track conjures images of waves rolling into rocks before receding back from whence they came.
There is a struggle between light and dark, joy and sorrow on the album’s second half, which provides tension but also feels a tad unbalanced. “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)” bursts into light around the chorus, recalling what might happen if Polyphonic Spree hijacked an Arcade Fire track out of nowhere. Meanwhile, “It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus)” starts with an angular guitar lick that sounds ripped from The Edge’s playbook and then dives into a crate of DFA Records (Murphy’s label). The call and response between husband and wife that closes “It’s Never Over” is among the most gorgeous moments on this record. “Porno” and “Afterlife” follow with a sense of longing, if not loathing. What is left is a restless dichotomy.
No one will accuse Arcade Fire of being a dance band. Not at this point, at least. Reflektor is fascinating more often than not, and, more importantly, enjoyable more often than not. The big questions about life and loss, death and what comes next remain at the forefront of Arcade Fire’s work. Their continued willingness to wrestle with the eternal, and also adventure into new sonic landscapes, makes them one of our generation’s most thrilling and essential musical acts. There is life amid their loss, even if it doesn’t come equipped with a second line.