The Beach Boys had their Pet Sounds. Michael Jackson had his Thriller. Radiohead had Kid A. U2 had The Joshua Tree (or Achtung Baby, depending on your preference). And now, Arcade Fire has their Reflektor.
As a reviewer, I listen to albums all the time, and typically I’m not just looking for good music from the artists I listen to, but I’m also trying to place their music within the scope of their artistic journey. Does this music advance the artist’s career, or is it a step back—or is it a sidestep, an anomaly?
But every once in awhile, you get an album that is in a league of its own, and it’s apparent that this is a game changer–the band’s defining moment, or turning point, or magnum opus. From the first couple of minutes listening to Reflektor, I knew I was in one of those moments, that this was no ordinary album. That Arcade Fire had found a pinnacle, and in that place had created an album destined to stand among the classics.
As much as anyone might have wanted to downplay it, a lot was riding on this album. The Montreal-based seven-piece indie-rockers had already built a strong following with their penchant for creativity, but winning the Grammy for Album of the Year with 2010’s The Suburbs (a win that took some folks off guard) put them on a different plane altogether. Now they could no longer be thought of simply as a cult favorite; the bar was placed remarkably high.
But then again, Arcade Fire have never shirked from high bars. From the look of things, they saw this as a challenge to aim even higher—and they rose to the challenge in style.
“Epic” is probably one of the best words to describe this double album—not in the sense of the grandiose or overly-ambitious, but in the sense of artistic scope, like an epic film. That’s somewhat to be expected of a band who already leans toward the theatrical, and considering that they were recently tapped to score Spike Jonze’s latest film Her, it naturally follows that Reflektor would play something like a movie. A two-part epic movie, to be specific.
To help them fill the space, the band called James Murphy (LCD Soundsystem) to the production helm—a move which in itself helped to galvanize the album’s cut-above status—and drew inspiration from everything from Greek mythology (note the statue of Orpheus and Euripedes on the cover, likewise the references to both in song titles on Disc 2) to the Caribbean rhythms of Haiti, where Win Butler’s better half Regine Chassagne’s family have their roots (note the addition of Haitian percussionists in the album credits). The album kicks off with the title track, a seven-and-a-half minute disco-tinged anthem punctuated with guest vocals by none other than David Bowie—another move that sends a clear message that this album is aiming exceedingly high.
Also to help fill the space, it seems Arcade Fire ventures into almost every conceivable subgenre that could loosely be kept within the realm of indie-rock—from straight-out buzzy rock & roll on “Normal Person” to echo-laden reggae on “Flashbulb Eyes”; from the 80s Michael-Jackson-esque R&B pop on “I Exist” to the punk and Blondie-esque New Wave on “Joan of Arc,” to the continued synth-driven New Wave sensibilities throughout the second disc. It deserves to be said that most bands couldn’t get away with this level of genre-hopping because it usually signifies that they do not know who they actually are, or are trying to be all things to all people. But it doesn’t play that way with Arcade Fire, who have never been ones to themselves to a particular sound. Instead, this diversity actually plays into the album’s epic-ness; by utilizing whatever sounds best convey the emotion, Arcade Fire come across as a band who are not subject to a particular style, but very much the other way around. (Another stroke that positions them for greatness.)
Like most epics, this one loses a bit of steam after the first half, as Arcade Fire allow the passion of the first act to settle to a low simmer about midway through the second. But that’s about the only slightly negative thing that could be said about this record. Overall, it’s a work of art that truly lives up to its muses, and after the high level of momentum created by the opening tracks, a bit of lag toward the end is forgivable.
At this point, words become a bit superfluous; the bottom line is that Arcade Fire’s Reflektor is musical literature, an album better listened to than just talked about. It’s definitely worth the 85-minute investment of time to listen end to end. From the opening moments to the closing notes, I predict it will be apparent to you that you’re listening to a record destined to be a timeless classic among rock albums.