Arcade Fire – “Reflektor”

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Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “Here Comes the Night” “Normal Man”

*I should clear the air about something first – Arcade Fire is my favorite band. Their music speaks more to me than almost all of the other hundreds of bands I like combined. Sorry if that’s upsetting, I know how pretentious they can be, but they could release an album of someone mowing their lawn and I’d love it. I tried not to fanboy too much in the review, I hope I did okay*

This is the divisive record. “Reflektor” is the Arcade Fire record that will separate the die-hards, the casual fans and the naysayers into their respective parties. Some longtime indie lovers are uncomfortable by Arcade Fire’s commercial success, and fans of popular music are never sure what to make of the group’s theatrical performances. But those unsure will either embrace “Reflektor,” or find it too pretentious, too overblown to be what it is. Thankfully, Arcade Fire always know when to draw the line, and we’ve received a massive, long album that covers all ground and only rarely feels unwelcome.

Throughout their first three albums, Arcade Fire kept getting related to David Bowie, although there was never any clear reason why. Lyrically and vocally, Win Butler kinda resembled him, but the very folksy album “The Suburbs” disrupted most of those comparisons. “Reflektor,” though, opens up why the connections were made in the first place – they are a multi-faceted band who approach tough topics with grace, and who aren’t afraid to get very soft, very loud, very spacey or very grounded in acoustic. “Reflektor,” produced largely by electronic demi-god James Murphy, might be the ‘Ziggy Stardust’ era for the band, down to giving Bowie himself a cameo line in the title track. It’s space-age, much more electronic than anything before. The band’s violinist, Sarah Neufeld, doesn’t even show up on the album and wasn’t used in promos. It feels science fiction-y at times, with epic lyrics and lengthy, spacey songs.

“Reflektor,” despite being 13 songs, spans 85 minutes over 2 discs. So, Disc One – hail the rhythm section! Arcade Fire’s early live shows were so riotous that the members would have to wear helmets. Years later, they’re headlining arenas instead of destroying clubs, but this album finally shows that energy. Only “Neighborhood #3″ showed that energy over their first three albums, but “Here Comes the Night,” “Normal Person” and the intro to “Joan of Arc” show a band about to bring their music off the rails.

Disc Two is less intense, with six slower songs. Not every track is necessary, as they all build up as spacey ballads. The intro and outro serve different purposes, but tracks two through five all hover around the six minute mark and, although they’re all great on their own, the disc feels bloated with each one. “Porno” has some interesting music, but is lyrically a little, uh, limp. “Afterlife” is the stand-out, the prettiest and the most harmonizing. Final track “Supersymmetry” is another slow one that’s followed by a ‘secret’ instrumental outro, but one that’s more appreciated when you pretend it’s all one eleven-minute, slowly-fading finale.

The album’s one big fault is the overly subdued second disc, but there is also a distinct lack of Regine Chassagne. She doesn’t sing lead on any tracks, and two of her appearances are in French (again, an alienating album). With continuing themes of discord and reluctance, we’d expect to hear more from her but she only makes brief back-up appearances. Win, as usual, sounds strong but confused and his storytelling lyrics are consistently engaging.

“Reflektor” is an opus. Most bands, after winning a Best Album Grammy, could take a backseat (no pun intended) and tread into safety for a little while. Instead, Arcade Fire have made one of the most ambitious albums of the year, setting out to prove a lot more than even their own previous works. It’s huge, it’s serious, it’s intense, it’s kind of fun and it certainly isn’t perfect – but it cements them as one of the leaders in alternative, and it serves to further polarize fans and critics.

If you like this, try: Some sort of homemade playlist of the Flaming Lips, LCD Soundsystem, the Joy Formidable and Interpol. Preferably all playing at once.

-By Andrew McNally

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