Ever since their massive alt-breakout in 2004 with Funeral, every Arcade Fire record has come with massive expectations – and yet the band was able to live up to them with 2007’s Neon Bible (QRO review), whose only real knock was that it couldn’t be as good as the amazing Funeral, and 2010’s The Suburbs (QRO review), which saw the group both expand and get more intimate. So of course the expectations were again high for Reflektor, but the band has finally not managed to meet them – though not in the ways you expected.
The classic ‘failure to meet exceedingly high hopes after great prior work’ is for the band to basically do what they just did, only without the originality. The other pitfall is the opposite direction, for the group to throw away everything that had made the great, completely reinvent themselves thanks to the space (and confidence/overconfidence) given to them by prior acclaim, and throw out the baby with the bathwater, while version 2.0 can’t match the original. Previously, Arcade Fire had managed to make their way in between those two extremes, crafting records that sound like Arcade Fire, but not Funeral II – Electric Boogaloo. Well, Reflektor has some ‘electric boogaloo’, as the group largely eschews their collective indie-orchestral rock for dance beats, albeit ones from the Caribbean, and synthesizers, albeit more after the party than in da club.
One thing that does remain from prior Arcade Fire records is a title track that exemplifies the record. Opener “Reflektor” is the dark side of the party, with neo-Caribbean rhythms, and it is one of the times where the group completely succeeds at what they are trying to do, putting up a dark mirror to the party (or perhaps just a clear mirror to what the party actually is). The tracks that immediately follow don’t quite accomplish that as well: “We Exist” is a bit too on the nose, a bit too trying to be ‘dark disco’, while the more calypso “Flashbulb Eyes” is marred by it being ‘a song about people trying to take your picture’ – pieces about being famous are the coughing canary in the coal mine of inflated star ego.
Thankfully, the rest of disc one sees Arcade Fire return to at least somewhat more indie-rock roots in “Normal Person” (even if singer Win Butler’s lyrics are, again, a bit trite) and “Joan of Arc”, but neither song is on par with the truly great indie-rock that the band had previously made. Stronger and more interesting is when the group actually goes upbeat about the party in “Here Comes the Night Time” and “You Already Know”, revealing a catchy side to the group hitherto undiscovered.
Another sign of inflated ego is making a two-disc release, especially when the second disc has a few songs that could have just been added to the first disc, plus a whole extra material best left for the ‘expanded deluxe edition’ release. “Here Comes the Night Time II” is a ‘reflektion’ of the original, this time with orchestra, which should be a b-side, while the wafting, airy electronica closer “Supersymmetry” might have been acceptable as an extended closer – were there not also a completely unnecessary hidden track right after it (oh, and there’s also some outtake sounds before the first song on the first record, making two hidden numbers – two more than any album should have).
Contrastingly, “It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus)” showcases Arcade Fire better at both bit epic and intimate beauty, and the penultimate “Afterlife” is the should-be closer, epic dance after the party’s over. Unfortunately, between the two is “Porno”, which is maybe the clearest example of how Reflektor drags down Arcade Fire. The synth-gothic piece could be powerful and memorable, but the disco wa-wa sounds are so leaden and uninspired as to weigh it down considerably.
After the hat trick that was Funeral, Neon Bible, and The Suburbs, Arcade Fire were more than overdue for a self-confident, radical shift in sound. That they picked electro-dance is somewhat disappointing, as that makes them only the umpteenth alt-rock act these days to embrace the sound that is already dominating the airwaves on its own. Still, Reflektor shows that the band can create some great music in this new (to them) vein, even if not as great as their truly great prior work. But it also includes their less-than-great creations, material a humbler band would have left on the cutting room floor. Strong wheat, but for the first time for time with Arcade Fire, it has to be separated from the chaff.