What better way to return from a two month blog absence than by tearing into something you love. Oh Arcade Fire, I treasured you so. You could (mostly) do no wrong. Funeral and Neon Bible stand as two of the best albums of the 21st century and The Suburbs, well, it had its charms I guess. But even the minor disappointment of that last release pales in comparison to the deep, haunting sadness Reflektor makes me feel.
Largely produced by James Murphy, the album has LCD Soundsystem all over it. Whilst I admire the bravery in changing direction on Arcade Fire’s part, in the end the result of their disco experiment is failed potential and over-indulgence. The worst offender is arguably Murphy himself. Where the live tracks, debuted in the somewhat over the top and only slightly self-aggrandising SNL promo, bounced with spontaneity and dancehall fun, the packaged effort is an over-produced mess that picks out all the wrong elements and ditches the fun for plastic, glitter covered soullessness.
Here Comes The Night Time, the standout track from that promo, is hit hardest. It’s the little touches – the little flourishes of Win on his effects board, the bite and funk of the guitar that whips along so furiously, the bouncing keyboard keeping it all going – or, rather, their absence, that are where the track is so neutered. Everything that made it so exhilarating, so propulsive and rhythmic, yet unpredictable, has been drowned in a sea of heavy-handed synth by Murphy. Butler’s vocals, once alive and filled with the buzz of funk, are routinely empty and toneless throughout the album. Much like so much else of the album it’s still good, it’s just not as good as you know it could have been. Everything’s just a bit off.
The title track is one of the few to emerge unscathed in the gestation period between tease and release. That mix of ethereal Arcade Fire with the world music funk of Talking Heads and some tasteful LCD Soundsystem glitz remains as hypnotic as ever. It weaves its way across styles and time with the kind of effortless grace that’s sorely lacking on the rest of the album. It has scale, but without sacrificing soul. The guest star, in this case David Bowie, is understated yet effective and doesn’t come off as hopelessly self-indulgent as the Jonathan Woss intro to You Already Know.
It’s hard to tell where the true nadir of the album, and, really, their career, is. You Already Know is simply one of the dullest songs I’ve ever heard (I use that word loosely) and the kind of Smiths impersonation you expect bands to grow out of by about 15. On the other hand there’s Joan of Arc, which has the lyrical invention to match You Already Know’s music. Whilst the chorus is undeniably catchy, there’s also something about it that fills me with total disgust. It’s just cheap sounding. Arcade Fire don’t do cheap. They do epic yet earthy, not this kitsch crap.
Perhaps what’s most disheartening about Reflektor is that sense of self-indulgence, that, newly Grammy-ed up, they’ve bought into their own hype. The hints were there in the build-up to release, but the reality is even more distressing; spoken word introductions about how they don’t like rock music, opening and closing songs to the sounds of people cheering, giving themselves needless introductions that come off more as claps on the back (see Woss). It’s just awful. Even doing a double album seems somewhat overwrought. You can tell they wanted to ‘do a double album’ in the classic Exile on Main Street, London Calling sense – that big, massively ambitious tour de force. They act like they’ve already done it, but they haven’t even come close.
Much of the album treads water in that dreary state of ‘solid’. Occasional bursts of invention like the Zooropa-like Porno shake things up, but for the most part it’s all hopelessly generic. It’s Arcade Fire doing Arcade Fire. IT has all the same cues and all the same beats, but it’s all so much more forced. Afterlife, the penultimate track, is clearly styled as the Wake Up or No Cars Go – the rousing, inspirational anthem. Normal Person is the one where they cut loose and rock out. Supersymmetry (which requires a monumental effort to endure) is the plaintive closer. They hit the right notes, but it’s all so artificial feeling.
If this review comes off as unnecessarily scathing it’s only because I’m so disappointed. I’m not so much disappointed in the music, it’s all passable stuff, what I’m really mad about is the attitude, the feeling of the album – that snobbishness, that smug self-congratulatory atmosphere that’s all over the album. I expected better from the band than to try to play rockstar. This faux-edgy, don’t give a shit act is grating at best and outright cringe-worthy the rest of the time. Even rockstars have to sound like they give a shit sometimes, and don’t make such a big fuss about it when they don’t.