I loved Arcade Fire’s 2010 album The Suburbs, but even I was shocked that it ended up winning Album of the Year at the Grammys. Surprised yes, but also delighted. As far as I’m concerned, The Suburbs was the Montreal band’s third straight masterpiece. The recognition from the Grammys merely felt like recognition of the fact that Arcade Fire is among the most definitive rock bands of the 21st Century, if not at the top of the stack. So no pressure or anything on the fourth album.
The biggest hurdle Reflektor has to clear is those very expectations that come from a perfect track record and a Grammy. I think a lot of people were expecting this album to be a victory lap, something to consolidate all of their strengths into a tight package and that will push them into the stratosphere. Instead it’s a willfully difficult album, sprawling and messy. It stretches over two discs, divided into 13 songs that mostly stretch well past six minutes. If The Suburbs was a study in muted grandeur, then the temptation here is to think this is Arcade Fire’s “dance” album. The title track, released as the first single, suggests that’s an accurate assessment. Produced by LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, it’s the sort of track he would have recorded. It has an understated beginning, finds a hook, and then builds on it over a steady seven minutes of escalating intensity. There’s other dance influence here as well, most notably on “Here Comes the Night.” Of course, that song elects to go more of an Afro-Caribbean route. Win Butler said that the album was influenced by his time in Haiti and Jamaica, and it shows strongest there, as well as on the nightmare robo-reggae of “Flashbulb Eyes.”
But that’s three songs on an album with 13 of them, and there honestly isn’t any one style going on here. There’s the pounding rock of “Normal Person” and “Joan of Arc.” There’s the jangly pop of “Already Know.” “Here Comes The Night Time” has a sequel that opens the second disc but that sounds totally different. In the grand tradition of double albums like the White Album, it pulls influences from all over the place. Unlike the Beatles classic however, it actually commits to each song and draws it out to the point where some people will undoutedly begin to get antsy.
Give those songs time though, and you’ll see something special begin to develop. While the styles might be all over the place, the songs share a tendency to begin in one place and then slowly evolve over the course of several minutes. “Awful Sound (O Eurydice)” begins with a chugging beat, and then turns into a soaring anthem so effortlessly that it never seems weird how much ground it covers. It’s followed by “It’s Never Over (O Orpheus),” forming a two-song suite. That one has a call-and-response element and a seething menace that never sound uncomfortable together. There’s a big love to drastic meter changes too, on display in “Here Comes the Night Time” and “Joan of Arc.” It’s almost like there’s so much intensity coming through that the song has to rein it in so it doesn’t burn out.
Arcade Fire has always gone for loose themes on their albums, from the appropriately-named Funeral to the terrifying holy wars of Neon Bible. Here the theme is a well-worn one, how we connect in an age where the very definition of connection is in flux. In the title track, Butler sings “We’re so connected, but are we even friends?” And on the circuitous “Porno,” he longs for a love that isn’t loaded with the choking sexual expectations of the internet age. This isn’t exactly new territory. Radiohead and U2 were pondering these questions twenty years ago. But Arcade Fire is able to say these things with a little more intensity and directness than either of those bands. Win Butler has never been a subtle lyracist, and that tendency anchors the songs here. It’s easy to be fooled into thinking this is a grower of an album, but it’s more accurate to say that it requires some commitment before you suddenly realize the hooks are racing through your head. I would say that it’s even more accessible than The Suburbs, which needed a few listens to rise above its mid-tempo underpinnings.
So where does this fall in Arcade Fire’s legacy? Obviously we can’t presume to know what people will think in 20 years. It’s not exactly the sort of album that will generate hit singles, which might disappoint new fans and label execs. But I think that we’ll look back and see that Arcade Fire made exactly the album they needed to make after the mountaintop of the Grammys. It’s all over the place, enormous, and long. It also happens to be brilliant, like nothing Arcade Fire has done, and certainly like nothing else being released these days.