Arcade Fire – Reflektor
Double albums are a tough trick to pull off (and even when they work, they aren’t always worth the effort put into them), but it’s easy to see why artists love to try them. They seem like such a great idea: a wider canvas on which to paint more. More instruments, more styles, more heady concepts, more everything. Arcade Fire are a band that never shied away from more, and the prospect of a double album almost seemed inevitable. But their gift for grandiosity (and the high that comes with winning a Grammy Award for Best Album) also makes them extra susceptible to the dangers of self-indulgence, so when Reflektor, their intensely hyped fourth album, was released in late 2013, it wasn’t exactly clear how it would end up. With LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy behind the boards, there was no question this would be a more danceable, playful Arcade Fire, one inspired by their frequent trips to Haiti and the Caribbean. This shift in approach isn’t as much of a shock as it seems: Arcade Fire have always been inspired by the nervy propulsion of post-punk and new wave. (Funeral is way more rhythm-heavy than you remember.) But those international influences make this more in line with other globetrotting electro-rock acts like mid-period Talking Heads, and it’s not just because Win Butler directly references “Heaven” on the first side’s skipping centerpiece, “Here Comes The Night Time.” Indeed, Remain In Light seems to provide a lot of inspiration for Reflektor, directly and not, sharing its concerns of identity and technology, its stylistic experiments and jump cuts, as well as the David Byrne-esque vocal and lyrical flourishes Butler occasionally employs.
But where Remain In Light is grand in scope yet focused in execution, Reflektor is just a giant, haphazardly brilliant mess. It’s not enough that they explore the themes mentioned above—this is an album that also touches on religion, mortality and uses allusions to Greek mythology and Joan of Arc as the basis for extended tracks. The music follows suit, with Arcade Fire trying a bit of everything, dipping into hardcore punk, dub, ragga, disco, African polyrhythms, funk and experimental electronic music, sometimes fusing these together into weird, oblong shapes. None of this feels particularly fragmented or jarring, per se, since the band’s voice and songwriting is distinct enough to keep up the flow. Nevertheless, the parts are far greater than the sum, so the collective wallop of the album is somewhat soft. Where each of their previous albums picked a certain thematic and musical palette and kept picking at it to find nuance and depth, here the smorgasbord approach treats everything more superficially, so the album lacks a clear through-line. Put another way, where, say, The Suburbs was made up of tiny moments that added up to something moving, Reflektor is made up of huge moments that don’t add up to much of anything at all.
So, for that reason (and because, debatably, a couple of tracks could be cut down a little), Reflektor is the weakest Arcade Fire album to date. But give it a few spins, live with it a little, and each of those individual moments emerge as bits of genius that redeem the record in a big way. The opening title cut marries Murphy’s expansive yet pointed production and Arcade Fire’s fondness for drama (plus a Bowie cameo); The raw “Normal Person” is their best rock song since “Power Out;” “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)” is epic, R&B-infused post-punk, and the creepy, tear-stained synth-funk of “Porno” is their most fascinating experiment. Yet nothing gets the blood boiling like “Afterlife,” which, with its searching, desperate chorus, is the most from-the-gut cathartic song they’ve penned since “Intervention.” This plethora of ideas reveals a band in transition, and it’s often thrilling to hear this band try to sate their ever-ballooning ambitions, even if it’s not quite all there. But after three albums whose quality ranged from “masterpiece” to “near-masterpiece,” releasing a record that’s “very good” is no crime, especially when that slip comes from overreach rather than complacency. It may be a shaggy dog album, but it only confirms Arcade Fire’s position as one of the best bands of their generation.
Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
Neon Bible did a curious thing to Arcade Fire. It made them popular. Sure, it wasn’t as universally acclaimed as Funeral, but it was damn close, becoming hugely critically and—as indie albums go—commercially successful. They didn’t become a household name exactly, but it wasn’t just your emotional, plaid-wearing brother or sister who knew them anymore. Even as they continued to grow in notoriety though, it was hard to imagine the Montreal septet sounding any larger on record. Accordingly, 2010’s The Suburbs showcases a new Arcade Fire, one that still has great ambitions but doesn’t find answers through ecstatic bursts of emotion. Indeed, those looking for the easy catharsis of songs like “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” or “Intervention” will be disappointed, but The Suburbs rewards in different ways.
Arcade Fire have never been so musically or lyrically direct as they are here, but they also have never been so diverse. While long-standing influences such as post-punk and David Bowie (namely his piano-driven Hunky Dory) still inform their music, Richard Parry’s howling feedback guitar suggests Sonic Youth, the hushed “Wasted Hours” is mournful folk-rock, and album highlight “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” even channels Blondie’s “Heart Of Glass.” Since the band now favors nuance over grandiosity, The Suburbs puts focus on Win Butler’s words, which often deal with the irony of longing for childhood, only to realize you spent childhood longing to mature and leave the nest in the first place. It’s more universal than the paranoid Neon Bible, and it holds together better too, mainly because his images, whether they be of pretentious, disinterested youth (“Rococo,” “Month Of May”) or reflections on childhood friends (“Suburban War”), are simple and straightforward. But while the album is strong throughout, it also has fewer distinct standout tracks than past albums, causing it to drag on occasion. Still, The Suburbs is a triumph and arguably better than Neon Bible, suggesting that Arcade Fire will continue to grow and maintain their position as one of modern rock’s most vital voices.
Arcade Fire – Funeral
Starting off by playing small shows supporting their self-titled EP, the release of Arcade Fire’s full-length debut Funeral brought the Montreal-based band a stratospheric amount of praise. Not only did they become favorites of critics and fans but they became lauded by such musical heavyweights as U2, David Bowie, David Byrne, and Damon Albarn. It’s not hard to see why, either. Funeral is sweeping and dramatic, dedicated to the band’s family members who had died during the recording and release of the album. As a result, the record deals with mortality, love, and loss and does it through grandiose music that takes as many cues from Talking Heads and Pixies as it does Neutral Milk Hotel and Bowie himself.
But all the unrestrained emotion–Win Butler’s primal singing and shouting, the string-laden loveliness, the transcendent choral harmonies–would be aimless and ineffective if it weren’t for the songs themselves. “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” sets the tale of lovers in a post-apocalyptic tundra to an ever-building crescendo; the propulsive post-punk of “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)” is a fiery indictment of the human condition. Meanwhile, “Wake Up” is a rousing anthem that features over a dozen musicians singing in unison. Yet, Funeral also works in its smaller scale songs as well. Moments such as “Rebellion (Lies)”‘s call-and-response pulse and “In the Backseat”‘s orchestral climax give the album a much-needed balance.
It’s no surprise Funeral‘s immense acclaim and unfiltered emotion galvanized a new trend of similar, big-sounding indie bands in the second half of the 2000s, but they often missed the point. Arcade Fire’s bombast never sounds forced here. They never sound as if they are badgering emotion out of themselves or the listener because, in the end, the appeal of Funeral isn’t its drama but its humanity. Despite its theatrics, it simply sounds like what it is: a group of friends and family genuinely achieving catharsis through music.