Arcade Fire's Musical Evolution Reflected On New Album
Published: Wednesday, October 30, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, October 30, 2013 22:10
Even when its audience was small, Arcade Fire has always been big. Many things have changed for the band since its earliest days in the indie rock circles of Montreal, but its commitment to chasing the big sound remains undiminished. From “Wake Up” to “The Suburbs,” Arcade Fire has always been more in the business of writing anthems than pop songs.
Two years after The Suburbs won a Grammy for Album of the Year, Arcade Fire is back with its fourth LP, Reflektor. As may be expected, it’s an expansive and ambitious affair, its 13 tracks spanning two discs and 75 minutes. All the usual Arcade Fire elements are here: lengthy anthems, multiple iterations of songs, tracks that build from muted openings to bombastic conclusions, darkly portentous lyrics, and highbrow allusions. Yet even as the album feels consistent with Arcade Fire’s earlier discography, Reflektor marks a departure in tone and style. The album shows a playful side to Arcade Fire, as the band loosens up musically, experimenting with longer tracks and funkier grooves, while lightening up lyrically. Reflektor does not mark a drastic change in Arcade Fire’s style, but it does represent a broadening of the band’s musical horizons.
The title track is a complicated and beautifully layered piece of work. A song full of dark bass grooves, tinkly piano strokes, a sinister horn part, and overlapping multilingual voices (including an appearance from David Bowie), “Reflektor” is a tale of love frustrated by deflected signals and unclear intentions. “I thought, I found a way to enter / It’s just a Reflektor,” sings lead vocalist Win Butler as his wife Regine Chassagne harmonizes. For nearly eight minutes, the song manages to find new ways to explore its mirror imagery and to orchestrate its various components. “Reflektor” makes it clear from the start that Arcade Fire will not be resting on its musical laurels.
The album’s first half delivers on that promise, track after track. “We Exist” and “Normal Person” are two early highlights, both rock songs with alienated protagonists struggling to assert themselves in a world of conformity. “Normal Person” is especially powerful, beginning with the provocative lines, “Is anything as strange as a normal person? / Is anyone as cruel as a normal person?” With a foot-tapping riff, a lively keyboard part, and some expressive guitar solos, the song gradually builds up in intensity and shifts meaning, revealing itself as a romantic come-on. It’s one of Arcade Fire’s purest, most satisfying rock songs, and an undeniable album highlight.
Still, the band works outside of its comfort zone on “Here Comes The Night Time,” a strange little track that is re-worked in a second version later in the album. The first iteration is a slow-paced, groovy six-minute track that wouldn’t be out of place in a 1970s disco club, though it occasionally breaks into faster tempos before settling back into its laid-back vibes. “Laid back,” of course, is not a phrase often associated with Arcade Fire’s brand of music, but with “Here Comes the Night Time” the band cuts loose and has some fun working in a new genre.
Arcade Fire is sometimes accused of being overly self-serious, but it’s hard to lobby that accusation against Reflektor. Even the tracks with the potential for pretension—a pair of songs about the mythical lovers Orpheus and Eurydice, and another about Joan of Arc, or another called “Afterlife”—avoid the trap. The album is characterized by quizzical playfulness rather than art-rock grandstanding. The songs are filled with curious, often funny little experimental touches: the female chorus that shouts “Hey Orpheus” like a group of cheerleaders, or the French verses that weave throughout the album, or the occasional spoken word intro and sound clippings interspersed throughout. The lyrics, too, embody this experimental spirit, more often asking questions than answering them. Arcade Fire seems less interested in building every song toward a single grand theme—as on The Suburbs—than in exploring a number of intersecting ideas while pulling new sounds out of its musical toolbox.
Ultimately, it is this spirit of “anything goes” that animates and distinguishes Reflektor. By surrendering some measure of control, allowing themselves to play fast and loose with song structures and genres, Arcade Fire has not lost its identity. Rather, they have continued to evolve, re-asserting their relevance with one of the best albums of the year.