Reflektor (Merge Records)
The lyrics reference Kierkegaard. The cover features a Rodin sculpture. And not only is it a double album, it’s a concept record. It may sound like the perfect storm of rock pretension, but Arcade Fire have actually lightened up the music on the rhythm-focused Reflektor.
It’s their fourth album and first since 2010’s Grammy-winning The Suburbs. Big themes are still front and center, but they’re delivered over the ass-shaking dance-rock that made co-producer James Murphy famous rather than the anthemic march rhythms that have been Arcade Fire’s bedrock for a decade.
The title track, a duet between the band’s spouse co-leaders Win Butler and Régine Chassagne, has many of the late-‘70s hallmarks of Murphy’s LCD Soundsystem: pounding disco beat, Latin percussion, horn punches, bright synth flourishes and a track length running over seven minutes. It’s a busy song where they allude to Kierkegaard’s idea of a “reflective age,” and lament how modern romance unfolds now: “We fell in love at 19, and I was staring at a screen,” Butler laments.
The kitchen sink production of Reflektor lends itself to headphones; there’s a lot going on in the layers of sound, and paces that shift from rushing thrashes to dub-inflected island jams. “We Exist” begins with little more than a rolling bass line and spy-theme guitar snippets and builds into a wall of sound melange of careening synths, treated piano and multiple voices by its end. The reggae number “Flashbulb Eyes” sounds like it could’ve been recorded on a Jamaican sound system, with continual echoes and stacked reverb.
“Here Comes the Night Time,” a gorgeous standout, begins in a hurry before shifting time signatures into a waltz, dropping in a Cure keyboard and switching into a tropical sound recalling the native music of Haiti, the homeland of Chassagne’s parents and site of the band’s recent relief work. The lyrics pose questions to missionaries sent to convert unbelievers: “If there’s no music in heaven, then what’s it for?”
The three other songs covering the first disc of this 75-minute double album maintain the same level of energy and inventiveness, but it sadly falls away on the second half. A second version of “Here Comes the Night Time” drains the original of its life. Songs referencing the Orpheus and Eurydice myth fall flat, and much of the 11-minute closer “Supersymmetry” recalls a half-assed Philip Glass pastiche.
The first half of Reflektor ranks among Arcade Fire’s strongest, most consistent material. The second disc makes a fine coaster, albeit a reflective one.