I was 14 when Arcade Fire’s debut Funeral was released to universal acclaim. I was just properly discovering the world of classic rock at that time and was too busy listening to Led Zeppelin IV, Who’s Next, and Dark Side of the Moon for the first time to pay it much mind. When I did listen to it once, cursorily, I was none too impressed. About six years later, the music world was once again buzzing about Arcade Fire’s then-new album, The Suburbs (I managed to pass over Neon Bible, apart from noticing it on the shelves at Borders back before the chain closed). I gave it a similarly cursory listen and remember penning a half-irritated, half-disappointed rant about my inability to get into what so many other seemed to think was so brilliant.
When I set myself the challenge of spending the last thirty days of 2013 listening to thirty new albums released this year, the band’s latest double album Reflektor was a frequent recommendation. So I gave it a shot, this time listening with careful attention over the course of a week. I’m glad I did; I think I’m finally getting it.
To say that Arcade Fire subscribe to an ethos of “Go big or go home” barely constitutes music journalism. But Reflektor is even bigger than usual: two discs, thirteen songs, seventy-five minutes (really just seventy if you discount the five-odd minutes of white noise that concludes “Supersymmetry” – when and why did this become a popular way to end an album?). Comparisons to U2 abound in the music press, and for good reason: the band’s cinematic aesthetic immediately brings to mind the reverb-drenched vistas of The Joshua Tree. But as befits an album of this size and scale, Arcade Fire incorporates everything from 80s alt-rock a la the Cure (“We Exist”) to Motown-via-New-Wave (“You Already Know”) to dense, bizarre reggae-funk (“Flashbulb Eyes”).
When it works, it’s truly arresting: for instance, on “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice),” where languid, widescreen strings and teary synths counter a muted, propulsive bed of percussion before bursting into equally widescreen evocation of the Beatles’ “Hey Jude.” Likewise the title track, which opens the album with some serious bass-driven funk and was reminding me of late-70s David Bowie even before the Thin White Duke himself joins in on the final refrains. When it doesn’t work, however, Reflektor can bog down in its own ambition. The moody electro-pop “Porno” never really comes together; nor does “Here Comes the Night Time” (Pt. 1), despite having its moments (mostly when the band drops the Caribbean affectations).
I find it difficult to fault Arcade Fire’s big aspirations, however. In his 1846 essay “The Present Age,” which largely inspirted Reflektor, Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard mourns the devitalization of then-modern culture, though his critique rings even truer in our day and age. As imagination and passion become passe, people and society become merely reflective – not in the sense of thoughtful, but in the sense of falling so far into introspection as to lose all capacity for action and human emotion. I quote at length from Kierkegaard:
If a precious jewel, which all desired, lay out on a frozen lake, where the ice was perilously thin, where death threatened one who went out too far while the ice near the shore was safe… [p]eople [in a reflective age] would think themselves very intelligent in figuring out the foolishness and worthlessness of going out on the ice, indeed, that it would be incomprehensible and laughable; and thereby they would transform passionate daring into a display of skill . . . . The people would go and watch from safety and the connoisseurs with their discerning tastes would carefully judge the skilled skater, who would go almost to the edge (that is, as far as the ice was safe, and would not go beyond this point) and then swing back. The most skilled skaters would go out the furthest and venture most dangerously, in order to make the crowds gasp and say: “Gods! He is insane, he will kill himself!” But you will see that his skill is so perfected that he will at the right moment swing around while the ice is still safe and his life is not endangered. . . .
Passion and daring, the daring to be authentic, to risk one’s self in the pursuit of something more important than comfort, is replaced by detached calculation. Safety trumps possibility. Thus devitalized, we end up reflecting a mere image (packaged and sold to us by an omnipresent media) rather than creating a unique identity for ourselves, as our own sense of self is progressively homogenized and ultimately obliterated. As Arcade Fire put it in the title track: “It’s just a reflection of a reflection of a reflection of a reflection.” When you take away all the mirrors, what is left?
This disconnect between our authentic selves and the “reflected” selves of this Reflective Age—and the ramifications of that disconnect in our personal relationships—is Reflektor’s key theme. It is against this Reflective Age that vocalist/bandleader Win Butler is railing when he sings on “Normal Person”:
I’m so confused. Am I a normal person?
You know, I can’t tell if I’m a normal person.
It’s true, I think I’m cool enough, but am I cruel enough?
And they will break you down
Till everything is normal now…
If that’s what’s normal now
I don’t want to know
Butler doesn’t want to be “normal.” And if casual cruelty and apathy couched as knowing irony are normal, then nothing could be more counter-cultural, more ab-normal than “Go big or go home.” Or to put it in the words of album closer “Supersymmetry”: “If telling the truth is not polite, then I guess we’ll have to fight.” If their vision overshoots their capacities of realization, at least Arcade Fire are still fighting, still reaching for the jewel on the other side of the ice. In our Present Age, that’s worth celebrating.
- Arcade Fire’s “Reflektor” (nikwithak.wordpress.com)
- Album Review: Arcade Fire – Reflektor (thethrillofitall.net)
- Arcade Fire: Reflektor Review (audiostereo.wordpress.com)
- Arcade Fire – Reflektor (Album Review) (13thfloor.co.nz)
- Arcade Fire; Reflector (hesaiditreview.wordpress.com)
- Arcade Fire: Reflektor Review (derezzination.wordpress.com)
- Stream Arcade Fire’s Entire New Album ‘Reflektor’ (mp3.com)
- Arcade Fire pays tribute to Haiti on new album (bigstory.ap.org)