Review: Reflektor is Arcade Fire's OK Computer

Our review of Arcade Fire's most daring album yet.


Though I just have anecdotal evidence to support the claim, I suspect more than a few Arcade Fire fans have been wringing their hands over Reflektor in the run-up to its release. Arcade Fire’s fourth LP has been the cause of feverish anticipation from the start – a double album by a beloved band, mostly produced by James Murphy, whose own musical output has long reached deified status. Reflektor’s first single and title track further stoked expectations. Despite some fierce competition, the staff here at PMA promptly named “Reflektor” one of the top tracks of the year.

And then came Arcade Fire’s awkward SNL appearance and the goofy special that followed. Both performances surely disappointed anyone familiar with the euphoria so common to the band’s live act. The poor sound mix could be forgiven, but the maddening and unfunny celebrity interruptions during the special were a bridge too far. Initial reviews of Reflektor, many of which have ranged from lackluster to dismissive, had already nervous fans preparing for the worst. True believers suddenly became Doubting Thomases.

With time, I suspect this premature panic will become a curious footnote to the real story: Reflektor is outstanding, the culmination of Arcade Fire’s career. Stretched across 85+ minutes, its riches can be overwhelming and, given Reflektor’s deceptive complexity, hidden in plain view.  But one thing is clear – the album is a product of sheer musical virtuosity, as each subsequent play makes ever apparent.

Early reviewers of Reflektor have likened it to Achtung Baby and Kid A, but such comparisons are superficial at best. Like those albums, Reflektor is Arcade Fire’s first studio release after receiving wide popular attention (well, in a way) and a stamp of approval from the music industry. At first, the album sounds like a radical departure from Funeral’s soaring, cathartic wallop; Neon Bible’s ruminative perplexity and Springsteen-inflected lavishness; and The Suburbs’ tidy mix of jangling mid-tempo numbers, acoustic sighs, and propulsive rock ‘n’ roll. As Reflektor sinks in and reveals itself to be equally cathartic, lavish, and propulsive, you realize how much it marks a natural – if jolting – progression for Arcade Fire, rather than an outright reboot in the manner of Achtung Baby and Kid A.

If Reflektor has to be tethered to a modern rock touchstone (in other words, a Radiohead work), it should be to OK Computer. Just as Radiohead took The Bend’s “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” as a starting point for something grander, so do Arcade Fire with The Suburbs’ “Half Light II (No Celebration)” and “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains).” Both OK Computer and Reflektor – direct follow-ups to albums celebrated for tight, straight-ahead musicianship – are experimental without being alienating or showy, and best of all, are eminently accessible and tuneful. This, of course, is not to say Reflektor deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as OK Computer in terms of absolute quality. Time will tell whether that disclaimer will continue to be necessary.

Arcade Fire Reflektor

Now that I’ve sufficiently avoided the obvious, let’s talk about rhythm. Back in 2007, the New Yorker’s pop critic Sasha Frere-Jones wrote a divisive, and problematic, essay on the whitewashing of rock by (then) current indie bands. His first culprit was Arcade Fire:

As I watched Arcade Fire, I realized that the drummer and the bassist rarely played syncopated patterns or lingered in the low registers. If there is a trace of soul, blues, reggae, or funk in Arcade Fire, it must be philosophical; it certainly isn’t audible. And what I really wanted to hear, after a stretch of raucous sing-alongs, was a bit of swing, some empty space, and palpable bass frequencies—in other words, attributes of African-American popular music.

There’s no point in faulting Arcade Fire for what it doesn’t do; what’s missing from the band’s musical DNA is missing from dozens of other popular and accomplished rock bands’ as well—most of them less entertaining than Arcade Fire.

That Reflektor makes Frere-Jones’ criticism of Arcade Fire seem ludicrous is no fault of his. It was accurate at the time (in the wake of Neon Bible). Instead, his words underscore how fully and comfortably Arcade Fire now incorporate and celebrate pan-African and, particularly, Haitian rara sounds. I seriously doubt Win Butler and his bandmates were in any way reacting to a New Yorker piece. But it’s hard not to hear in Reflektor’s relentless slinky bass-guitar lines (see: “We Exist”) and syncopated tom thumps, high-hat taps, and bass-drum kicks – which are present even on slower tracks –  a rejoinder that blasts that argument into dust.

Howard Hawkes once described a good movie as having “three great scenes, no bad ones.” If we transpose his rubric to popular music, and raise the bar a bit, then a good album should have five great songs, no bad ones. Reflektor, which contains a marvelous centerpiece and a few highlights on each disc, far exceeds this standard with ease.

Reflektor’s fantastic title track pulls the trigger on the album’s galvanic first half. Murphy’s influence is at the forefront here. He nimbly balances and makes sense of so many sonic elements and genre experiments that a few of disc one’s tracks threaten to succumb to aural and stylistic chaos. To his credit, they never do. To wit: the bizarre and ominous “Flashbulb Eyes,” thick with reverberated instruments and voices, swooping electronics, and agitated guitar picking. Blaring horns and triumphant strings weave the steady mid-tempo groove of “We Exist,” until the song rides a crescendo of fuzzy guitar chords and unison voices to its apex. “Normal Person,”  Reflektor’s rock standout, starts with Some Girls sleaze and then surrenders to guitar-solo histrionics.  Disc one’s live show conceit is anchored by “Here Comes the Night Time,” an overt love letter both to Haiti (the homeland of Régine Chassagne’s parents) and dancing in the open air. The beguiling, tinkling piano lick that serves as the song’s central motif morphs into an outright keyboard pounce, just before “Night Time” explodes into a cacophonous, double-time rara freak-out.

Arcade Fire Reflektor Video

We return to more familiar Arcade Fire territory on Reflektor’s subtler second side, which opens with the delicate “Here Comes the Night Time II.” If disc one gives the album a pulse, then disc two delivers its requisite emotional punch. Greek tragedy informs the splendid duo “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)” and “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus).” On “Awful Sound,” Butler as Orpheus laments love lost over a McCartney-esque, sing-along chorus. In a collision of New Wave and funk, Chassagne, our Eurydice, finally takes the spotlight in the gem “It’s Never Over.” It takes a while for Reflektor to reach “Afterlife,” its climax and closest sequel to “Sprawl II.” But when it does, a great album becomes spectacular. Reflektor closes with the immense warmth and sparkling beauty of “Supersymmetry,” a parting gift to the already grateful.

Yes, Reflektor is very, very long – almost the length of a feature film – and I could do without the ambient stretches that bookend the album. Otherwise, there’s not a moment I think needs to go. Arcade Fire’s general self-seriousness has been a problem, however, and I’d have liked to find some of the playfulness the band has shown during recent performances in Montreal, Brooklyn, and Miami on display in their studio work (Butler’s hilarious Mick Jagger impersonation on the intro to “Normal Person” notwithstanding). It is heartening to hear that they’re letting loose on stage, at least, even if it is under the aegis of their fictitious group the Reflektors. Arcade Fire contend with their usual BIG THEMES – mortality, community, connection, anti-capitalism, paganism, Neo-Luddism, and even a little thing called romantic love – on Reflektor. But this is music that moves the body along with the spirit, a damn fine step in the right direction. [A-]