It’s safe to say that Arcade Fire entered this fight with the challenger already on the ropes. Beneath their belt lay a virtually seamless trifecta of modern alternative rock records gleaming with style, intelligence and a seemingly unwavering tastefulness. Funeral, Neon Bible and The Suburbs each asked the big questions and followed through with equally big answers. And while fourth album Reflektor reaches for the same heights as the previous LPs, it’s the first time Arcade Fire’s iron grip seems to falter.
A single listen through Reflektor will instantly bestow you with your favourite tracks. It’s these four or five tunes that will start gathering plays in iTunes, while the rest fall by the wayside, or act as background music interludes between “the good ones”. The title track’s extravagant yet meticulously crafted production, thanks in large part to ex-LCD Soundsystem chief James Murphy, is an infectious, mobilising suite of hushed vocals, electronic grooves and the band’s characteristically baroque instrumental excess.
The Giorgio Moroder synths and crescendoing energy of glam strut We Exist will likewise defy you not to think they’ve done it again, and by the time the blue-eyed reggae of Flashbulb Eyes comes around, “the most important band of the decade” have maintained their perfect GPA. Of course, another look at the lyrics for the latter cut, “Hit me with your flashbulb eyes! / You know I’ve got nothing to hide”, and one begins to wonder just what the normally silver-tongued Win Butler is trying to pull.
It’s not the only lyrical mis-step either. On the enjoyable, Marc Bolan-infused Normal Person, the lacklustre wordsmithing continues. “Is anything as strange as a normal person? / Is anyone as cruel as a normal person?” begins Butler, like an especially pontifical philosophy tutor, then admitting, “You know, I can’t tell if I’m a normal person / It’s true, I think I’m cool enough, but am I cruel enough?” Ah!
It’s lines such as these that begin to erode the veneer in which Reflektor inevitably and understandably comes pre-packaged. The lyrics feel like uninspired parlour tricks, juxtapositions of light and dark, day and night, which feel rote and, to the listener, rather deflating. It’s a testament to the band’s musical ability and dogged workmanship that the music keeps one invested, though unfortunately there’s holes in that parachute too.
While Here Comes The Night Time is an entertaining, dub-inspired shuffle that, much to its own credit, succumbs occasionally to the stolid, sinister vibrations lurking beneath its twee surface, it fails to justify its running time. Likewise, Grecian meditations Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice) and It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus) seem to meander right past the listener’s patience, begging too much time for relatively little return. Whatever way you look at it, Reflektor could really use an editor, particularly on its rather demanding second half.
Armed with influences as crawly and unsettling as Haitian voodoo and the plasticisation of man, the band have designed a suitably ominous and cold soundscape for Reflektor. As an execution of concept, Reflektor gets ten out of ten. As a consistent and rewarding listen, points must be deducted. We end on a high note with the delightful Supersymmetry. The song slowly unravels like a rose garden flourishing before your eyes, perhaps the only track over five minutes that warrants such a length.
You can indeed have too much of a good thing, and while this doesn’t necessarily make Reflektor a bad listen, it certainly edges in that direction. The Reflektor quagmire is largely a result of the fact that, for Arcade Fire, it simply isn’t enough to record an album, they must formulate an opus. Unsatisfied with merely being good (and they are very, very good), they shoot for profound like a cursed gambler, and it’s the listener who ends up short-changed.
Arcade Fire’s Reflektor is released in Australia today. The band will be touring Australia in early 2014 as part of the Big Day Out.