By David M. Goldstein | 8 November 2013
Can a suffocating pre-release hype campaign negatively impact one’s enjoyment of an album? The correct answer should be of course not; promotional hype existed long before the days of continuous blog updates, and the music will remain long after the PR folks have cashed their checks. But I’ll be damned if Arcade Fire’s recent promo blitz doesn’t seriously challenge that notion. I realize that there are probably parts of the country where the Grammy winning band are the farthest thing from a known entity, and if they had decided on a whim to play some tiny shows in Little Rock, Arkansas or Bozeman, Montana, that would be plenty welcome. But suffice it to say that most New Yorkers have a passing familiarity with this band. This did not stop Arcade Fire from carpet-bombing Manhattan with promotional graffiti nearly six months before Reflektor’s street date, hijacking the CMJ festival with two “secret” shows in in a Brooklyn warehouse, and appearing on every one of the late night TV shows that are filmed here, including Saturday Night Live, the episode of which was immediately chased by a half hour performance special on NBC. They still referred to themselves as “black sheep” in a recent NME interview with a straight face.
All of this was ostensibly to alert the record buying public of Reflektor’s existence, but may have had the unintended effect of turning people against Arcade Fire for their utter lack of self-awareness, Anne Hathaway style. So it’s ultimately to their credit that once you manage to block out the promo noise, the majority of Reflektor is actually pretty good, offering up much of the group melodrama and impressive dynamics that have endeared so many to this band over the past ten years. To the extent that it’s flawed, this can mostly be levied at Arcade Fire’s seeming inability to self-edit, or producer James Murphy’s unfamiliarity with the word “no.” And let’s be frank: it takes cheek to put a seventy-five minute album on two CDs, especially when an album has as many six minute songs as Reflektor does. Barring a hidden investment in a plastic production plant, there’s absolutely no reason for Reflektor to span two discs, and Arcade Fire are inviting critical broadsides of their self-importance as a result.
Of course Win Butler and co. realize that most listeners aren’t exactly going to be rising from their sofas to physically insert the second disc, which they humorously make clear by inserting the old-school, five note beep to indicate a side starting prior to “Here Comes the Nighttime Part II.” The wonder of iTunes and/or Spotify playlists also allows one to engage in revisionist history by completely axing disc one travesties “You Already Know” and “Normal Person”; the former is cloying power-pop fluff, the latter an ill-advised, finger-wagging RAWK epic that stands as the single worst song Arcade Fire have ever recorded. What remains is sixty-five minutes of an album that might still be better off at say, fifty, but the quality of what’s left is generally high.
The opening title track was previewed far in advance of Reflektor’s release, and essentially serves as the blueprint to whether or not you will find the remainder enjoyable. Despite the presence of longtime engineer Markus Dravs, this is clearly James Murphy’s version of Arcade Fire, piling on multiple windy synth lines over a conga groove straight out of a 2003 DFA production, and David Bowie shows up three-quarters of the way through just because. It’s a little Remain in Light (1980), a little overlong, and taking a shot every time Win Butler says the word “reflector” is a good way to get yourself killed. It’s also extremely catchy, with an intricate arrangement always teetering slightly on the verge of collapse. This could describe each of the listenable tracks on Reflektor’s first disc—evidenced by how “Joan of Arc” crafts an earworm chorus after a dalliance in hardcore punk morphs into the “Spirit in the Sky” beat, and the whiplash tempo changes and vibraphone melody of “Here Comes the Nighttime.” The “Billie Jean” bass line in “We Exist” makes up for the fact that the nearly six minute run time feels less than earned, and “Flashbulb Eyes” is as convincing as dub reggae from gawky Canadians gets. I’ve always chosen to focus on Arcade Fire’s love of a widescreen sound more than Win Butler’s lyrics. So while I’m less bothered by his love of “down on your knees / begging us please” rhyme schemes than my CMG brethren, I hope he overcomes his newfound, AC/DC-ish tendency to endlessly repeat song titles as choruses by album number five.
It’s at this point you ask yourself, this kind of just sounds like overproduced Arcade Fire, wasn’t this supposed to be their huge Studio 54 record? While rumors of Arcade Fire going full on disco have been exaggerated, Reflektor’s second disc is far superior to its first, and makes an excellent argument to those put off by the somewhat didactic nature of the first half to stick it out. The atmosphere is more relaxed, the songs less forced, and aside from the title track, “It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus!)” and “Afterlife” are the reasons that Reflektor got labeled as a dance album. Both sound like quality remixes of New Order’s “Temptation,” and are therefore the album’s strongest songs, and the closest cousins to The Suburbs (2010) highlight “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains).” “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)” is as affecting a ballad as anything on the first two Arcade Fire records, and the ’80s Depeche Mode Goth of “Porno” is a welcome change-up. A far preferable look to Neon Bible’s (2007) ’00s Evanescence Goth.
Despite what both the band and legions of critics would have you believe, Reflektor could hardly be considered a “sprawling epic.” It really only contains about an hour’s worth of listenable music, and Arcade Fire have yet to write a single song as indelible as “Rocks Off” or “Dear Prudence.” Instead, it’s an interesting, intermittently excellent album from a skilled group that could still use a little help in getting out of their own way. Clearly Arcade Fire aren’t going anywhere—next time out, I know I’d prefer they let the music do more of the talking, and maybe work with a producer who’s gonna reel ‘em in just a little. I mean, c’mon guys, you’ve clearly adopted your promotional tactics from U2, but not even Bono has ever released a studio album on two CDs.