I guess I’m just going to have to get used to being an Arcade Fire contrarian.
Don’t get me wrong, I like the guys. I have a beard and wide-rimmed glasses and I wear skinny jeans, what did you expect? But I always found the smoky neo-Springsteen stylings of Neon Bible just that little bit more impressive than the universally lauded Funeral. My favourite song of theirs is from the former – the deeply-American, deeply-mournful modern hymn “Intervention.” And when their last, Grammy-winning album, The Suburbs, received widespread critical and popular acclaim, I couldn’t understand the buzz. I didn’t hate it by any stretch, but it felt bloated to me, a concept album without enough of a concept and too many songs.
And now critical consensus appears to be swirling and solidifying around the Montreal indie rock troupe’s new record, Reflektor. It’s mostly getting positive reviews, but the tide seems to be swelling towards a few, oft-repeated ideas. It’s overlong. It’s over-ambitious. It doesn’t live up to The Suburbs. It’s just not sexy. There’s a sense of disappointment that pervades most reviews of Reflektor, even the very positive ones – a sense that Arcade Fire promised the world and just delivered, well, a two-disc album.
It’s not that these complaints aren’t without merit, it’s just that they strike me as a book report approach to an album that’s more of an experience than something to be dryly picked apart (Flavorwire describing the album as The 20/20 Experience of indie rock is pretty apt, even if I don’t agree with their argument). Yes, this is a long album filled with long songs, with thirteen songs unfolding in just under an hour and a half. Sure, it’s nothing revolutionary, but that shouldn’t be a surprise unless you’re very susceptible to marketing. And I won’t deny that the lyrics aren’t always top-notch.
The problem seems to be that the album’s lukewarm, semi-positive, “it’s-okay-I-guess” initial reactions – reactions that already seem to be curdling into a critical backlash – are entirely motivated by a reaction to what the record was supposed to be, rather than what it is (Okay, maybe not entirely motivated. The “Arcade Fire aren’t sexy enough” review seemed to expect a Prince record from a notoriously sexless and serious group). James Murphy’s well-publicised involvement as producer should have been a big hint – this isn’t another introspective, brooding concept album. This is a fucking dance record.
Let’s put this into perspective: how many music reviews griped about the lyrics to Random Access Memories? No, I don’t want your hyperlinks, I’m trying to make a point here. “Normal Person” might be a not entirely cogent rant about normalcy from someone fairly famous (and presumably, fairly rich) but who gives a shit when it’s just so much damn fun? Title track “Reflektor” is (probably) about how art reflects its audience’s preconceived expectations, and going in looking for the emotional depth of Funeral is inevitably going to result in disappointment. But if you appreciate the record on its own terms – as a full-bodied, impeccable sounding celebration – it’s an easy album to love.
Let’s stop tilting at straw-men music critics for a moment and examine just why Reflektor is such an impressive piece of music. The YouTube pre-release of the album played over a key influence, Black Orpheus. The film is a reinterpretation of the Orpheus myth set in the midst of Brazil’s Carnival. Reflektor is a carnival, a mardi gras. A party. It’s drunken and debaucherous and delightful. The songs’ length isn’t a fault of the album, but a feature, reflecting the way time seems to stretch out in caramel tendrils in that perfect maelstrom of dancing that defines a real celebration. James Murphy is a master of taking a simple musical idea and building them into an epic where length is a virtue, and those skills are on full display here, even if it might take a few listens for them to become apparent. I found the title track overlong on the first few listens, but now I couldn’t imagine it without its sustained coda. The lengthy songs are also far from monotonous – “Here Comes the Night Time,” for example, builds from a crashing wave of percussion into a jaunty pop song and it all somehow makes sense.
Maybe Arcade Fire’s music isn’t all that sexy, but disc two of Reflektor demonstrates that these guys at least understand what it’s like to party. The second half of the record is a more muted reflection (get it?) of the first. This isn’t anything especially original; there’s countless double albums broken up into “day” and “night” themes or similar. What distinguishes this second disc is the way it captures the comedown of a sprawling night out. When after too many intoxicants and too much dancing leaves you sprawled amongst your friends, ears ringing and head spinning as the music continues to thump and tinkle. Hangovers and regret might wait in the future, but those moments are defined by pleasant, somnolent exhaustion. Such is the last half of Reflektor, triumphant, tired and thoroughly satisfying.
Critical consensus be damned, Reflektor is a glorious success. It’s perhaps Arcade Fire’s best record yet – though James Murphy surely deserves much of the credit – and probably my favourite album of the year so far. I could rattle off a list of its great songs (there’s not a bad song amongst them, for all the accusations of filler directed towards it), but the strength of the record comes from its cohesion, the way one track bleeds into another and builds a consistent atmosphere. I don’t have any problem being an Arcade Fire contrarian if that means getting to revel in such a brilliant album.