“It’s difficult to call this Arcade Fire’s magnum opus, because every album it’s recorded feels like its magnum opus. This is a band in the business of making gigantic, absolutely essential records.”
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Parker Evans is an economics senior and Mustang News music columnist.
I don’t think Win Butler ever smiles. Nine years after his band gave its earth-shattering debut, Funeral, Arcade Fire’s music hasn’t lost any of its urgency or grave sincerity. When all of the matching uniforms and publicity shenanigans are gone and the band finally gets into the studio, Arcade Fire has no time for tongue-in-cheek irony or smirking sarcasm — it just has music that it desperately needs you to hear.
Over the years, Arcade Fire has developed a frustrating habit of distracting would-be listeners from the music. Between mysterious “underground” marketing campaigns, muddled album concepts and big-name collaborators, much of the attention focused on the band has little to do with the actual content of its art. It’s worked with everyone from David Byrne and David Bowie, who contributes guest vocals on the title track, to Roman Coppola and Spike Jonze. Reflektor is arguably the most-hyped album release of the year (with the possible exception of Yeezus), but let’s get one thing out of the way: Reflektor is required listening.
It’s difficult to call this Arcade Fire’s magnum opus, because every album it’s recorded feels like its magnum opus. This is a band in the business of making gigantic, absolutely essential records.
The U2 comparisons that have followed Arcade Fire since its inception are somehow more apt now than they’ve ever been. Reflektor is our Achtung Baby: a sharp shift away from accessible arena-ready pop-rock towards a more mature, denser production that is somehow the perfectly intuitive evolution.
Arcade Fire’s most recent album, The Suburbs, shocked the public by beating Billboard mainstays Lady Gaga and Katy Perry at the 2011 Grammy Awards for Album of the Year. Suburbs was a quintessential American record for a Québécois band, but Reflektor’s influences stretch the globe. Butler’s wife and harmonizer, Régine Chassagne, occasionally sprinkles phrases of French on highlights “Joan of Arc” and “Reflektor,” among other tracks. Butler claims the album was inspired in part by an essay from the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. The Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice pervades everything from the album art to the song titles — the band even leaked the album to YouTube in the form of a lyric video with the record playing over the French-Brazilian Palme d’Or-winning film “Black Orpheus.” In typical Arcade Fire flair, Reflektor was even recorded in an abandoned Jamaican castle.
Globally speaking, the Haitian influence shines through especially bright. Arcade Fire is connected to Chassagne’s ancestral home through its music and ongoing earthquake aid fundraising, so it is particularly fitting that both “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)” and “Here Comes The Night Time” take their ecstatic percussion from traditional Haitian rara music. One of Reflektor’s more haunting tracks, “We Exist” can be read as a plea from the Haitian people to the rest of the world. “They’re down on their knees,” Butler sings, “Begging us please / praying that we don’t exist.”
Arcade Fire’s production has always been immaculate, but the work of James Murphy and Markus Dravs here deserves special attention. For the first time, Butler and company actually want you to dance, and the infusion of subtle Caribbean rhythm is a welcome addition to their arsenal. The biting melody of “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)” is perfectly accented by dark, menacing synths and the appropriately sleazy “Porno” could have been a single for Murphy’s newly-defunct band LCD Soundsystem.
Reflektor grabs the listener’s attention immediately with the explosive, danceable seven-minute title track and never lets up. From the short punk intro of “Joan of Arc” to the dreamy “Supersymmetry” to the paranoid Pixies-esque “Normal Person,” Arcade Fire remains endlessly creative and exciting. The group’s ability to remain flexible under an overarching tone is something we’ve come to take for granted with this band, but it becomes especially necessary during the course of a double album.
There’s no getting around Reflektor’s daunting size. Weighing in at a hefty 85 minutes with a surplus of six-minute songs, it’s a monument to uncompromising ambition. But like so many great authors late in their careers, Butler could probably use a more judicious editor with the courage to trim the fat and whittle down to a collection of truly magnificent songs. Even so, Reflektor is an absolutely essential album. Like Yeezus earlier this summer, it’s a record that demands you listen to it and form your own judgments. Ultimately, Reflektor is an album so massive and dense that its gravitational pull draws you helplessly into its orbit.