I’ve Been Listening To Reflektor, Dancing Alone In My Bedroom For Days: Love Is Plastic, Break It To Bits
Indie rock no longer wears a disguise. We see Win Butler behind his stripe of black. We see the band he fronts, Arcade Fire, win the Grammy for Album Of The Year. We see him and his brother Will laugh with Steven Colbert on TV. And we listen to Arcade Fire records and they make us feel good. Really good.
It’s not even indie rock anymore. It’s just rock and roll. And even better, we have Arcade Fire. They’re orchestral. They tell sweeping stories of love and human behavior in their concept records. They have a violinist in their (currently) ten-piece band. Their music is exciting and extravagant. Arcade Fire challenge us with what music can do.
Reflektor is the band’s fourth record on Merge. It was produced by DFA Records co-founder, producer and former front-man/front-brain of the now disbanded LCD Soundsystem, James Murphy. You will read reviews that call it a “carnival-parade.” You will watch their “Here Comes The Night Time” TV special and recreate your own disco dance party. You will hear it and think of Talking Heads, the original dance punks. You’ll hear track two “We Exist” and think of Billie Jean. You will maybe fashion a giant papier-mâché head. You will dance alone in your bedroom late at night because you can’t get it out of your head. All of this is normal.
Now that we live in the age of The Album Release, it became clear early on that Arcade Fire was going to do us one better for Reflektor. First it was the vague street murals and graffiti. Then it was small public appearances, followed by a live television performance. But then they did a TV special. All the while, appearing as The Reflektors. Their sly effort to trick audiences into seeing a different version of themselves was a unique reinvention (one that even came with its own headwear). But as soon as they showed their faces, the cat was out. Turns out no one can keep a secret on the Internet. Everything about Arcade Fire is too big to ignore. Who cares if the ploy worked. Nothing about it was boring.
Reflektor is a grab bag full of confetti and colored lights. And its influences are just as strange as the record may seem. Co-founding member, multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Regine Chassagne’s parents immigrated to Quebec from Haiti. Win Butler (her husband) and Chassagne traveled to Haiti for Carnival where the streets are lined with rara music. You can see a version of it in their online Just A Reflektor virtual projection and hear it all over the album. Haiti has had a presence in the band’s output (and in their charity work) since the song “Haiti” appeared on their first record, Funeral, back in 2004. Chassagne sings (not enough on this record) in French, which is Haiti and Quebec’s primary language. The other main influence of Reflektor is from the 1959 film, Black Orpheus, Butler’s favorite. Both titles “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)” and “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)” pay tribute as does and the “Afterlife” video.
Arcade Fire uses percussion and rhythm to drive the songs on Reflektor in ways they never have before. They drop a beat once and a while, but spend more time building up and pushing back. Meanwhile, the stories on the record are prodding us to question everything. “Normal Person” opens with Win’s distant voice, “Do you like rock and roll music? Cause I don’t know if I do.” The song is an anthem: “Is anything as strange as a normal person/is anyone as cruel as a normal person?” Win questions it further: “I think I’m cool enough/but am I cruel enough/for you?”
Album opener and title track “Reflektor” has a great, unsung line: “”our love is plastic/we’ll break it to bits.” Arcade Fire has been around long enough (next year is their tenth) to know that you can always smash something and start over. The chorus is just reminding us that we don’t have anything to lose: “if this is heaven/I need something more/if this is heaven/I don’t know what it’s for.”
“Here Comes The Night Time” is a super huge piece of music with excellent piano tracking. Win is telling us to look inside for darkness, “if you’re looking for hell/just try looking inside/if you want to be righteous/get in line/because here comes the night time.” For as colorful as Reflektor may seem, its natural state is that of curious crisis. If you ever needed a record to shamelessly dance to while questioning your reason for being, Reflektor is it.
There are some weird parts. The ten-minute “Hidden Track” is scraps of other songs, few on backwards loops. It’s mostly noise and sounds sometimes like a video game. Nearly the last six minutes of closing track “Supersymmetry” is dull white sound. “Here Comes The Night Time II” is slower than its previous. (Butler told Rolling Stone the second version was written first.)
Track twelve, “Porno”, is on my shortlist of throwaway tracks with “Joan Of Arc” and “Flashbulb Eyes.” These songs act more like filler dance segments than they do as substantial moving parts. The songs have control of where they’re going but are ultimately unsatisfying. Instead, look to “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)” and its patter of drums and slick rhythm guitar. It bleeds into a synthetic pulse and further into a full chorus. “Afterlife” is the record’s magnum opus. It’s wonders can we work it out? And scream and shout? It has an unbeatable chorus and is six minutes of perfection.
I’ve already spent too many days listening to Reflektor. And I’m fine with it. Music as beautiful as this doesn’t come along often. It doesn’t question heaven in the chorus. It’s not poetic. It doesn’t raise my blood. But Reflektor does.