Arcade Fire: “Reflektor”

by tigermanifesto

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This is the first entry in which I get to write about Arcade Fire. In many ways, this is a moment for which I have been waiting for a long time. On the other hand, I have been waiting and biding my time for a specific reason: no way was this tiger going to opine about Arcade Fire until he heard what James Murphy’s production would do for them. My relationship with this Montréal band is clouded by none of the patriotic obligations of my Canadian editor, and my personal (tigernal?) detachment from most indie rock means that I don’t normally follow this band very closely. James Murphy, another artist robed in indie press acclaim, was an object of my suspicion for a long time. My discover of how subversively sensual his music is, and his collaboration with Gorillaz and André 3000 on “DoYaThing” both conspired to confound my expectations of him. Arcade Fire, the standard-bearer of cinematic post-U2, mid-2000s rock bands, has not had its own reevaluation. To me, they are still a largely sexless arena rock band fronted by a male vocalist who drives me to kill helpless creatures. Plus he’s not Canadian, so even my editor can’t defend him despite his patriotic obligation.

What made me put off ragging on these accomplished musicians just for James Blake? Mainly, it was one of the songs from their last album, The Suburbs, that I thought was genuinely great. “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” showed me two things:

1. If the band could get off its addiction to crescendos, it would be much better.

2. They should be a dance band, for goodness’ sake!

Tense build-ups to staggering crescendos can only work for me if you build your entire band around them–see Godspeed You! Black Emperor–or are otherwise more creatively varied and less milquetoast than Arcade Fire. This kind of  approach is an easy emotional short-circuit, a way to evoke emotions your music probably doesn’t deserve. See: Coldplay and their banjo-toting clones in Mumford and Sons. That said, “Sprawl II” shows what a great house beat might do for the band. It’s much closer to proper body music than anything else on that album, and in that way far more effective in its grandiosity. Combining the spectacle-driven overreach of a song like that with James Murphy’s production, I reasoned, and you might finally get a whole album I find more than merely palatable. An Arcade Fire that is more

And less

Would be a gigantic improvement in my eyes. Plus keep Win Butler away from the microphone, or any recording equipment whatsoever. That last one was always going to be unlikely, but tiger wishes are supposed to be especially potent. But! Now we have the first single from the band’s new album, Reflektor, and it so happens to be the title track.

Its opening, a shower of distorted piano segueing into a techno track, shows some initial promise. That techno part sticks around, forming the skeleton of the entire song. Horn sections feature prominently, and Win Butler and Régine Chassagne (the good vocalist) harmonize a fair bit, which is certainly more pleasant than Butler’s plaintive, grating cries standing alone. Most of the familiar Arcade Fire elements are at work here, though I have to admit they sound much better against Murphy’s production. It’s still overblown, lacking in nuance, and earnest in a way that tries to be reflective but usually ends up just being sterile. That said, you can dance to it, and the substitution of a feverish pulse for the more stately rock the band usually employs makes all the difference here. “Reflektor” works well, and it makes a case for this new album being at least a noteworthy evolution in the band’s output. That, at least, is worth celebrating, even if the song isn’t quite strong enough to make me change my mind about its creators.

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