Album Review: Reflektor

Editor’s note: this piece was written in early November

Whatever one makes of it, the story of Orpheus and Eurydice serves as the only proper introduction to Arcade Fire’s fourth album Reflektor. The two tragic figures grace the album’s cover and are the subject of the album’s two-song centerpiece, subtitled (Oh Eurydice) and (Oh Orpheus). One could argue that lead singer Win Butler has marched his band, including his own Eurydician wife Regine Chassange, from the darkness of their first album Funeral to the promised land of their incredibly successful third album The Suburbs, all while refusing to look back and review their success as, if not the biggest, as least the most respected rock band in the western world. That the band almost commits Orpheus’s mistake in an album centered on that exact well-intentioned tragedy is a grand irony from which only one of the best bands in the world can escape. Arcade Fire has made some of the biggest statements in rock ‘n roll the last ten years, and their latest album is their biggest, albeit most frustrating, statement yet.

Reflektor is a sprawling, massive, beautiful, confusing, and often disappointing but oh-so-rewarding double album. Somewhere between the title track and the closer “Supersymmetry” lies the best album of their career and quite possibly the best album of the young decade, but as tempting as it is to only illuminate the album’s most brilliant achievements, doing so would trivialize the product’s whole. Reflektor contains a lot of uninspiring, disingenuous, and downright bad music, and that is not something anyone has come to expect from Arcade Fire.

The opening title track kicks off the album unlike any of their previous openers, attempting to insert themselves into an indie-disco phenomenon (with a fun David Bowie cameo) that’s difficult to pull off without any previous experience. They don’t succeed, and the eye-rolling process repeats on the worse “You Already Know” and the complacent but puzzling “We Don’t Exist.” All of this happens on the album’s first side, which would be a pretty intolerable collection of music if it weren’t for “Here Comes The Night Time,” the album’s most immediately likeable song. On “Night Time” Win and Regine bounce their harmonies over a stripped down and celestial dub groove (“If there’s no music up in heaven/then what’s it for?”), ignoring their own precedent and successfully toying with synthesized sounds. “Night Time” is the album’s only reasonable single, much like “Ready to Start,” “Keep the Car Running,” and “Rebellion (Lies),” songs that established a firm college radio presence while not shining as the most important moments on their respective albums. The next three tracks find the band trying, and failing, at meat and potatoes rock ‘n roll, the worst of them “Joan of Arc,” by far the band’s worst recorded song to date, a stab of punk and I-don’t-know-what that sounds like an unfunny Spinal Tap anthem. If the nearly forty minutes of material released on the double-album’s first side were the only thing to grace our ears, there might have been riots (though probably not). Side one is nothing less than disappointing.

But then, oh-my-goodness, side two. Refletor’s final forty minutes supersede its first 35 with lovely and assertive gusto. Far beyond reverting back to the quality we’re used to from what I now consider to be the best band in the world, side two of Reflektor finds Arcade Fire besting everything Arcade Fire has ever done. It all begins with “Here Comes The Night Time II,” an anxious introduction to the thirteen-minute Orpheus and Eurydice saga. On “Night Time II,” Regine falls into her role as an indispensible backup singer, the sweet angel directing the chorus from her whispers on Win’s shoulder. Regine drops back into the shadows and somehow becomes a much larger vocal presence for the band than she was up front.

On “Awful Noise (Oh Eurydice),” Win begins the band’s retelling of the myth by taking on the perspective of a modern day Orpheus. “I know there’s a way we can leave today/think it over,” Win croons, and Regine responds, “I’m never going back again” with such grace above a smoldering orchestration that never rises above its deliverers (Imagining Win and Regine as Orpheus and Eurydice is too easy for anyone who has seen clips of their live interactions). Right when the song reaches its illustrious peak, it cuts out to make way for Eurydice’s perspective, the forgotten angle in this story. The companion song “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)” begins with the 80s synth that made LCD Soundsystem such a wonderful slice of nostalgia, but settles forty seconds in with an immortal guitar lick we’ve come to expect from the band since “Wake Up” became the climax of every summer festival in the mid-aughts. All of this precludes the song’s desperate and exciting opening lines: “Hey! Orpheus! /I’m behind you! /don’t turn around! /I can find you! /wait until it’s over!” Regine echoes the excited frailty expected from any portrayal of Eurydice, and Win matches his wife’s anxieties with one of his most thrilling performances: “and I will sing your name/until you’re sick of me!” he wails with equal passion. “It’s Never Over” chronicles the joy of love, the sweetness of human interaction, and the perils of a tragic romance between two figures that deserved none of the hardships they received. “Eurydice/Oh, Orpheus,” Win and Regine harmonize for the last time in the story, thirteen minutes from when it began, “it’s over too soon.”

Closer “Supersymmetry” is an eleven-minute song in that it takes elven minutes for the dot on the screen to go from the left side of the bar to the right side. In reality, it’s five and a half minutes of bliss and five and a half minutes of reflection. It’s the final movement to a grand piece of music, one that requires another movement for meditation, and the band is happy to provide the drone of feedback and muffled strings to complete the task. Win and Regine have never sung as beautifully as they do on “Supersymmetry,” and as the final song on the entire collection, it bests “Sprawl II,” “In The Backseat,” and “My Body is a Cage,” the band’s superb collection of show-stopping closers.

Considering each half of the album as two separate entities may be unfair since they came from the same source, but Arcade Fire brings the separation of Reflektor’s two albums on themselves by giving each of them an entirely different feel, and unfortunately a gap in execution. The first album, with the exception of the title track and “Here Comes The Night Time,” is pretty bad. The second album is the best collection of music Arcade Fire has ever recorded, a crowning achievement from a band that has already achieved everything an “indie” band can dream of. Can we simply source the law of averages and proclaim the entire thing to be only pretty good? Arcade Fire demonstrates on Reflektor why in fact they should be regarded as the best band in the English-speaking world, despite the album containing four reasonably unlistenable songs. Although I desperately want to say it is, considering the entirety of the project, I cannot objectively call Reflektor a great album. What I can say, however, is that the band hasn’t lost steam since putting out their first three excellent albums, and the brilliance they display ten years into their career convinces me we are listening to greatness, perhaps the greatest in the world right now.

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