Two years ago, people were saying, “Who the f— is Arcade Fire?” after the Canadian band’s album “The Suburbs” won the Grammy for Album of the Year. Now the band enjoys widespread praise for being one of the greatest indie bands of the 2000s. After three critically acclaimed albums, Arcade Fire’s fourth album, “Reflektor,” is a radical departure from the band’s previous endeavors. In this case, different doesn’t necessarily mean worse, but if you are like me, it’ll take a few runs through the album to see.
Where “The Suburbs” was a more conventional and straightforward record, the two-disc “Reflektor” combines a wide array of influences to create a diverse, grandiose-sounding album. Frontman Win Butler and wife and bandmate Regine Chassagne cite Haitian music as having a major impact on the band and it is clearly evident on most tracks, no more than on “Here Comes the Night Time.” The song uses thumping bass lines to create a mid-tempo dance number infused with a Caribbean feel that takes a wild turn by the song’s end. The enriched role of the rhythm section is also front and center on the relentless “Billie Jean” style bass line in the standout track “We Exist.”
Another major influence on “Reflektor” is James Murphy, the man behind electro dance-rock band LCD Soundsystem. Murphy produced most of the album, and his trademark dance grooves are evident, especially in forming the backbone of the title track. The song features a groove guaranteed to stick in your head, and it also features some vocals from none other than David Bowie. Another song rife with Murphy’s impact is the spectacularly catchy “Afterlife.” The track anchors the album’s second side with synthesizer beats like those of New Order and forceful drumming by Jeremy Gara. However, don’t be wary of Murphy’s influence on the record; at its core, “Reflektor” is an Arcade Fire album through and through.
One of the issues I have with this album is the break into two discs. The more I listen to “Reflektor,” the more disjointed discs 1 and 2 feel to me. Disc 1 is full of propulsive songs that make the first half fly by in a flurry of pulsating sound, whereas disc 2 is a much more introspective experience. “Here Comes the Night Time II” provides a surprisingly satisfying segue into the second disc, but the rest of the songs feel disjointed. Even the two-song arc to embody the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice seems out of place in context with the rest of the album, and it raises the question of why the album cover reflects that myth as well. In the end, it feels like the band broke “Reflektor” into a double album to recall the nostalgic feeling of the experimental albums of the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Another gripe I have is with the song lengths. I suppose the production budget didn’t cover a janitor for the editing room, because it feels like nothing was left on its floor. Poor jokes aside, several songs build and build to that trademark Arcade Fire crescendo before being allowed to exit with a whimper, like a dog with its tail between its legs. The main culprits are songs like “Porno,” “Joan of Arc” and “Supersymmetry,” which seem to overstay their welcome with prolonged outros. “Reflektor” and “Afterlife” appear to suffer the same overly long syndrome upon first listen, but over time I’ve come to appreciate their fullness, depth and completeness.
At this point it is hard to stack “Reflektor” up against the Montreal-based band’s other albums. On one hand, it has surely come up with the indie rock anthems like “Wake Up” and “Intervention” that Arcade Fire has become known for, with tracks like “Normal Person” and “Reflektor.” On the other hand, it has its share of miscues, like sophomore album “Neon Bible” had (I’m talking to you, “Flashbulb Eyes” and “Porno”). For me, “The Suburbs” was so complete and focused that it is off to the side, exempt from comparison. So that puts “Reflektor” in the same stratosphere that the band’s other albums inhabit, high above most other indie bands of today.
While diverging from the beaten path, Arcade Fire has managed to overcome the pressure of topping their album of the year, “The Suburbs,” by creating something so entirely different. The band’s new sound might catch fans of the band off guard at first, but after a few listens you should come to appreciate the greatness in the bold, new direction of “Reflektor.”