Friday, 22 November 2013
For the first time in The Arcade Fire's career, small voices of dissent and disappointment were raised this past month at the release their fourth record. While perhaps these voices were heavily outweighed by the usual acclaim that greets the band, the fact remains this is the first time in the existence of the Canadian outfit that they've faced any significant amount of backlash toward their usually flawless catalogue. The reasoning for this small controversy was simple and easy to understand; Reflektor marks the point of exploration in The Arcade Fire's career that inevitably must take place after a period of domination such as the band's- alongside Radiohead, U2, and a host of other huge names (which Win Butler and co. can now count themselves among having dominated the century so far with a trio of glorious alternative rock albums), the band have surpassed the point of simply making great music they know in favour of exploring brave, uncharted new territory, signified here by the inclusion of the former brains of LCD Soundsystem, James Murphy, whose involvement as producer is indicative of their step into the electronic style sound that has previously been hinted at throughout their catalogue.
Reflektor kicks off with its title track, consisting of an irresistible rhythm section to back Win & Regine's weaving vocals, a wonderfully underplayed horn arrangement and even the tiniest of cameos from David Bowie. ''We Exist'' continues with a familiar message of band unity similar to ''No Cars Go'' but with a kickstart beat reminiscent of ''Ready To Start'', while ''Flashbulb Eyes'' feels more like the weird sci-fi sibling of a shorter piece like ''Neon Bible''. The comparisons generally stall here however as the record takes on a life of its own with ''Here Comes The Night Time'', a definite highlight of the album, revolving around an oddball piano hook that is resolved in its mournful second half. ''Normal Person'' continues this winning form next with the type of anthemic, building climax that the band specialize in so well, before ''Joan Of Arc'' introduces the straightforward guitar rock sound that has yet eluded the tracklist.
If there's any outstanding problem with these 13 songs, it's the criminal underuse of the band's secret weapon, Regine Chassange. Once again the female vocalist is relegated mostly to backing vocals, an astounding misuse considering her vocal led songs are usually counted among the band's finest work, ''Sprawl II'' and ''Haiti'' acting as evidence of this. In any case, ''It's Never Over'' is the most significant use of the frontwoman throughout the album, while ''Awful Sound'' continues the gentle second half with a lullaby conclusion before the band make use of Kavinsky style synths on ''Porno''. Reflektor comes full circle with ''Afterlife'', another clear standout which is always building towards a climax with an intense beat carrying all the way through until it's realized in a full culmination of the album's sound with a set of stunning backing vocals of a wave of rhythmic noise. It's ironic that an album which spreads its 13 tracks over such incredible length (85 minutes to be exact) ends on what feels like an unfinished note with ''Supersymmetry'', a mesmerizingly beautiful closer that leaves the listener craving more as Win and Regine put their delicate vocals to wonderful use over a slow synth backdrop.
And so Reflektor finally comes to an end. Claims of exceeding length are perhaps understandable given the extraordinary running time, but for true fans of the band these accusations will prove unfounded, with length acting as a gift rather than a curse as each sprawling piece is executed carefully and precisely with a measured pace to the very last beat. These songs may take time to build, but it's well spent time, and perhaps the biggest compliment you could pay Reflektor is the extraordinary fact that despite its epic length it's never overstated, bloated, or unnecessarily filled; every single moment is totally justified and masterfully executed.
Perhaps the band owe a certain debt to The Cure's Disintegration for several reasons; from the strangely danceable arrangements and hollow, dark themes to the exceeding song length and skilful pacing, there are more than several telling features of Reflektor that point to Robert Smith's magnum opus as a strong comparison, while U2 are also easy to credit for the band's ability to retain their melodic sensibilities throughout the experimentation process.
Admittedly, there were several things that had me dubious about Reflektor upon first listen, whether it was the previous niggling critical voices I'd heard or the daunting time, but this is a record that unfolds and opens new levels with each listen, resonating deeper each time and allowing us to discover new meanings within, exactly the way which great albums and great music should be made. With 4 albums released now and not a single mis-step, The Arcade Fire could go anywhere next but you get the feeling it'll be just as sensational as it has been since 2004. Cruicially, the band have started to realize their own greatness (there's a definite swagger on the album that wasn't here before) without letting it affect their enormous talent, and that is perhaps the most significant and impressive element of Reflektor.