By Blake Baxter
Arcade Fire has long been among the most adored bands in indie rock circles, but it wasn’t until fairly recently that they became an undeniable mainstream success. Their last album, The Suburbs, somehow went double platinum in the era of Spotify, YouTube and torrents; went to number one in seven different countries, and won the Grammy for Album of the Year. The commercially sensible thing to do after making an album as massively popular and prosperous as The Suburbs in today’s pop landscape would simply be to recreate the formula. Ninety percent of bands would jump at the cash grab, and no one would really blame them. Arcade Fire, however, is far from a typical band.
It wouldn’t be that difficult, really. Over the course of their career, they have established a pretty recognizable pattern. Each album tackles a different weighty theme with utter sincerity and seriousness, and the inevitable result is unfailingly powerful music. Their songs are packed with common instruments (guitar, drums, bass, piano, synthesizer) and some not-so-common instruments (violin, cello, xylophone, mandolin, etc.). There are somber tunes that make you question the meaning of life followed by soaring strings that remind you that all of the pain you experience is worth it in the end. Their tracks are played with uniform purpose and precision. However, none of that is to say that they are formulaic. Yes, they are similar in that each album is an emotional and spiritual journey towards finding a greater truth, but each journey is wholly unique.
The band’s first album, Funeral, was released in 2004 to nearly unanimous critical acclaim, despite generating the least amount of commercial success out of all of their albums. It dealt primarily with a subject that is (unfortunately) universally relatable: death. But for a record about a subject so dark, it contains some incredibly uplifting moments. Death is unquestionably sad, but it has the power to bring people together and appreciate the joys and mysteries of life, a point beautifully driven home by singers Win Butler and Régine Chassagne.
With their next album, Arcade Fire leapt into the murky waters of organized religion, violence and every day delusion. It was certainly less joyous than its predecessor, but Neon Bible was a creative and commercial (compared to Funeral) success. Whereas Funeral often sounded like it took place in a fantasy world, Neon Bible is clearly based in (North) America. It was more grounded than their previous effort in this way, and yet more grandiose in others. Musically, Neon Bible is daringly diverse, featuring the backing orchestra and choir of Funeral, with the addition of uncommon instruments like a mandolin, an accordion, a pipe organ and the sublimely named hurdy-gurdy.
Then came the 2010 smash hit, The Suburbs. Some have argued it’s the band’s magnum opus. It is undeniably – and purposely – their most adult album in their discography. Thematically, it is about the dread of growing up, viewed through the prism of idealistic youth, world-weary nostalgia and the trials of a suburban lifestyle. And yet, despite the future not being what they expected when they were young, they manage to find optimism in the present. It’s bittersweet, beautiful nature and tight composition garnered praise from critics, but its mix of rich orchestral instrumentals with sweet pop-rock sounds is what won over a larger audience – and furthermore – what made them a bonafide arena rock band.
As previously stated, it would have been perfectly reasonable and relatively easy for Arcade Fire – now one of the biggest rock bands in the world – to re-engineer a pop sound that you could tap your foot and occasionally lightly head bang to, but that’s just not their style. Instead, with Reflektor, Arcade Fire has released an album that is in about as far the opposite direction as you can imagine. Reflektor is the band’s first double album and it’s surprisingly being billed as a dance record. Although the group delves into big themes as it has in the past, Reflektor is a different animal entirely – and not just because of the change in genre; Reflektor is the result of a religious experience that profoundly affected the band.
Some have said that the band’s foray into dance music is an unnatural attempt at cashing in on their newfound marketability. There have been those that have given it pejorative labels such as “disingenuous,” or worse, have compared it to Coldplay’s dance-y and detestable 2011 album, Mylo Xyloto. Former LCD Soundsystem front man James Murphy’s involvement in the album has only added fuel to the fire. The use of Murphy as a mercenary-for-hire further signifies Arcade Fire’s true intentions, they asserted. But to say all of that does two things. First, it totally discounts that Murphy and Butler have been friends – Butler is responsible for the fantastic title of LCD Soundsystem’s documentary about their last concert, Shut Up and Play the Hits – and have wanted to collaborate together for years. Secondly, it questions the validity of the band’s religious experience, which is more than a little condescending. (A few years ago I had the chance to see Arcade Fire live and felt like I, myself, had had a religious experience. Mine wasn’t a traditional one either, so I’m not going to have the audacity to question an astute theologian and philosopher like Butler.)
During The Suburbs tour, Arcade Fire visited the earthquake-devastated homeland of Chassagne’s parents, Haiti. It was there that they became enthralled by the differences in music and culture. And it was there that they had their spiritual and musical awakening. They saw people who didn’t have the conveniences we take for granted like, you know, electricity, rush home before nightfall; street musicians that have never heard The Beatles play congas and a society function without technology. In addition, they traveled to Jamaica and recorded amongst reggae royalty – in an actual castle! The two experiences may have been diametrically opposed, but together they provided inspiration for the most eclectic album of Arcade Fire’s career.
The group’s travels opened their minds to what their music could be, and it’s apparent from the first 10 seconds of their opening song, “Reflektor,” an epic 7-minute synth and conga-filled epic. The opener sets the tone and introduces the varied themes of this new adventure. It refers to the “reflective age,” an era coined by 19th century Danish philosopher Soren Kirkegaard in his 1846 essay, “The Present Age”. In his essay, Kirkegaard criticizes modern society for being too focused on press, promotion and appearances, rather than sincerity and passion. As Butler recently said in an interview with Rolling Stone, “He’s talking about the press and alienation, and you kind of read it and you’re like, “Dude, you have no idea how insane it’s gonna get.” The lyrics repeatedly refer to how technology, media and social media are meant to connect the world, but often they have the opposite effect.
(The song also has a great backstory. While meticulously tinkering with it during the mixing of the record, David Bowie stopped by the studio and said, “If you don’t hurry up and mix this song, I might just steal it from you!” So the band did as the rock icon wished and invited Bowie to contribute backing vocals. Pretty neat. Also: do yourself a favor and watch their innovative interactive music video: www.justareflektor. It’s phenomenal.)
The first half of the album strikes a strange, but compelling balance between funk, punk and Caribbean music. While “Here Comes the Night Time,” musically and lyrically influenced by the band’s time in Haiti, contains voodoo drums, African percussion, and captures the spirit of festival music, “Normal Person” is a foot-tapping piano jam, with unexpected but welcome White Stripes-esque riffs and exuberant horns playing in the background. The first half closes with “Joan of Arc.” Among the album’s most rambunctious and anthemic tracks, it draws a parallel to the way the French warrior was treated and the way celebrities like, say, Arcade Fire, are treated by the media and the general public today.
The second half of the album begins with “Here Comes the Night Time II,” which is also influenced by sunset in a Haitian village, except it is deliberately more atmospheric. Whereas part I is about the frenzy and the race to get home before dark, part II captures the moments right before the sun actually goes down. This is the norm for much of the second album. It is less funk and punk; more moody prog and electro-pop. In fact, much of it is reminiscent of the intentionally evocative, yet soulless Drive soundtrack. It also introduces the Greek mythology of Orhpeus and Eurydice in the songs, “Awful Sound (Oh, Eurydice)” and “It’s Never Over” (Hey Orpheus)”. The story, immortalized in the 1957 Brazilian film Black Orpheus, is about a love triangle that ends, as they tend to, in tragedy. To discern the possible connections to the main theme of the record, it takes more than a little unpacking, but the different implications are fascinating.
As a whole, Reflektor is illuminating, impressive, incredibly musically diverse and at times, a bit too much. While the musical matrimony between the husband and wife singing duo of Butler and Chassagne is touching and inspiring as always, the experimental musical elements add an entirely new element to the mix. Some will find the subject matter pretentious and preachy, (though, really, you could make that argument for any of their albums, so you’re not exactly breaking new ground here) and the change in direction disconcerting or – God forbid – fake. However, plenty of others will embrace (and have already embraced) the band’s daring and ambitious decision to step outside their comfort zone following their Caribbean journeys.
Regardless of the direction they choose to journey in the future, Arcade Fire will continue to capture the hearts and imaginations of those who are similarly interested in dissecting the effects, complications and wonders of the past, and more importantly, the present.
Blake Baxter is a native of Illinois and a 2013 graduate of Eureka College. He currently covers the Carolina Panthers for Football.com and previously covered college basketball for ESPN Louisville during the 2012-13 season. He has also written about sports, pop culture and politics for The College Fix, The Wine and Cheese Crowd and an assortment of newspapers. Blake works in the communication and marketing field for Technical Solutions & Services, but aspires to write full-time someday.