Arcade Fire – Reflektor

Reflektor is the sound of a few Canadian goofballs throwing themselves a well-deserved party, writes LACHLAN KANONIUK.

There are a number of contextual forces at play when approaching an album like Reflektor, the foremost of which is how it compares to Arcade Fire’s already formidable back catalogue – the resounding debut, the worthy follow-up, the surprise Grammy-winning validator. Plus we have to place the album within the grander scheme of things, whether in terms of the impending barrage of Best Of 2013 lists, or an attempt to forecast its lasting impact in the years to come. After spinning Reflektor more than a few times, however, it becomes apparent that the sprawling double album isn’t quite so easy to define, twisting and turning with an at-times jarring absence of inhibition.

There’s a certain absurdity within the notion of a double album in the digital age, highlighted by the first official release of Reflektor in its entirety was through a holistic YouTube clip. Halfway through that clip, and in turn the album, was a tonal relic from a previous age. Side two of the album opens with the distinctive synth chimes of a cassette signalling it’s time to change sides. It’s a joke. After 10 years of building their cool with earnestness, they now try to profess their cool like a daggy uncle pulling coins from behind your dirty ears. It’s as if they’re attempting to diffuse any pejorative of humourlessness, an accusation that hasn’t fully been articulated, or warranted for that matter, throughout their existence.

“Reflektor” – what does it mean? Funeral, Neon Bible, The Suburbs – previously, it’s all been there in the title, neat little concepts blown out into dynamic rock anthems and low-key melancholy. Here, things aren’t so simple. The album’s nearly-tedious marketing campaign was built around misdirection, the band playing shows and releasing singles as The Reflektors. The commitment to such ruse in an era of rapid-fire information was perplexingly futile, but maybe that’s the point. These Canadian giants, standing like critical (but not quite commercial) conquerers, slink in the shadows on the album’s opening title track, scheming like cartoon rats amongst Boney M bursts of disco bombast. David Bowie, a goddamn musical icon of the highest order, makes a fleeting appearance as a back-up singer. No big deal.

“They now try to profess their cool like a daggy uncle pulling coins from behind your dirty ears.”

The opening line of ‘We Exist’ – “Walking around / Head full of sound” – acts as a spin on the infinitely uncool Cliff Richard’s ‘Wired For Sound’, casting an anti-social shadow over the ubiquitous headphones implanted into our ears. It’s sung by Win Butler in a deadpan manner over a slinky synth bass that’s been unearthed from a mid-’80s time capsule. That daggy charm is parlayed into creeping paranoia and success-fuelled fear, “We know who we are/And no shit we’re confused.”

There are kooky tracks, some that play it vehemently straight. The kookiness is hit and miss, but it’s invariably interesting at least. ‘Flashbulb Eyes’ is a mellow underwater reggae jam, slightly undone by Win’s impassioned commitment to the tacky imagery of the title. The charming finger-snapping swagger of ‘You Already Know’ is a welcome change of pace. ‘Joan Of Arc’ is a conventional power-pop rock histrionic affair, but feels lifeless, as if the band are floating like mosquitos to a big blue neon zapper that reads “middle of the road arena rock”. An enticing, loose barroom ambience welcomes ‘Normal Person’; Win playing the role of ego-driven rock star, wearing a Jagger costume that comically proves to be a suitable fit. The stop-start ‘Here Comes The Night Time’ is a splendid Caribbean lullaby at heart, snapping into frenetic freak-out dance mode on a whim. It lacks subtlety, but that’s not what we’re looking for here, is it?

The Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is ostensibly the thesis of the album, with tracks dedicated to each as well as cover star duties. Huge tectonic plates of bass underpin ‘It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)’, which would be far more captivating had Muse not employed similar sonic qualities on ‘Madness’. But it’s compelling nonetheless, adding doses of cheerleader pep on the chorus cry. Partner track ‘Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)’ is a spacey ballad, indulging in a myriad of musical touchstones that haven’t really been apparent in Arcade Fire’s palette to this point – fragile uneasy synths, big Abbey Road tom rolls and more than one ‘Day In The Life’-style orchestral lift-off.

The whole pre-launch Reflektors guise is an extension of the album’s true purpose, the band – one of the biggest on the planet right now – having an out-of-body experience, gazing from the outside looking in as best they can. It’s not always pretty, but the varying degrees of honesty give a relatable sense of what music (and love, I guess) means to them.

Just as much as this is the Arcade Fire that unleashed an ocean of flashing balls over a rapturous Coachella crowd, it’s the Arcade Fire standing around a piano, dead drunk over a decade ago, sloppily placing their aural fingerprints over Christmas standards. Reflektor is the sound of a few goofballs throwing themselves a well-deserved party, present are the requisite anxieties that go hand in hand with playing host.

Reflektor is out now through EMI. Listen below on RDIO.