Arcade Fire: Reflektor
Let’s keep this one short and sweet. To do that, I will first zoom out and look at the state of rock in general and see where Arcade Fire fits in the scheme of things. After that, I’ll discuss how Reflektor’s individual character raises important questions about the band and how its success and failure as a product and as a work of art ties into some of the points I make in the first part.
First, consider this quotation from The Atlantic’s Noah Berlatsky, writing in an article about another Montréal-based band called Suuns:
[Rock] is now, and ever more decidedly, about looking over its shoulder. Suuns are pretty clearly arty kids doing rock … but that is no longer enough to put them outside the tradition. Rather, at this point, it just puts them in the long tradition of arty kids doing rock. When the Suuns reference Sonic Youth or the Beatles, they aren’t creating a rupture or a gimmick or a revolution. They aren’t looking to escape the implications or tropes of their most obvious and immediate heritage. On the contrary, they’re just extending and celebrating the work of their forbears. They might as well be a blues band, or a bluegrass one.
Rock music at all levels of the industry has retreated from the future. Any future. Loving admiration for the past has replaced critical distance or attempts to go further, and rock music everywhere becomes more obsessed with its own past. At this point, rock music is mostly judged for its adherence to certain established conventions, its ability to conjure up old memories. There is an utter lack of vision, and the rock world is no longer governed by a stable of core bands but a multiplying array of smaller ones, each of them sustaining little micro-niches and tunneling in a million different directions.
The music industry, deeply wounded by digitalization and the ongoing collapse of CD sales, has splintered into a two-tier structure. On the very apex, there are a few reliable mass-market stars. On the second and lower level, there is mass chaos. Members of successful bands like Grizzly Bear can’t afford health insurance. Corporations capitalize on indie rock’s cachet of cool for film trailers and commercials while offering musicians only a pittance. At this point, most people in rock music don’t write about social or economic issues, and even fewer would dare to be overtly political. This is symptomatic of a transformation of punk/indie/alternative rock, the result of its moving from a working class genre to a middle class and academic one. John Lennon came from Liverpool and had no higher education. Win Butler has a degree in religious studies from McGill University. With that trajectory, one is bound to observe some fundamental changes in how music sounds and what its priorities are. At this point, indie rock is largely the music of bourgeois complacency and fussy formalism, tamed and popularized by a whole apparatus of websites and writers who give these albums arguably more press than pop smashes that sell far more records.
Arcade Fire began their career with an album called Funeral. On this album, they are constantly making a demon of the light. Flashbulbs, missionaries with their little lights, and hint of luminance is an object of suspicion. The album, befitting its title, is a backward-gazing one, far from straightforward but not treading into undiscovered territory so much as twisting and complexifying what has come before. What we are left with at the end is a dreary monument to disaffection. Reflektor raises important questions, but refuses to offer any kind of answer. It skulks in the darkness, like a dance party that refuses to end because the people in it are trying so hard they can’t stop. At one point, Win Butler intones that he doesn’t know if he likes rock music, sounding like a more polished John Lennon from “Yer Blues.” Unlike the blues, unlike jazz at its best, unlike the best of music anywhere, this album is sad and turgid but does not have any longing for a brighter future. Mere nihilism is not enough to make bad music–witness the charming pop craft of Stephin Merritt–but for music this enormous and loaded with portent it is a death knell. I suppose we’ll probably be stuck with bands building their monuments to the past for the time being.
Until society moves on, we can’t expect our musicians to. I just wish the sound of No Future were more interesting than we find on Reflektor.