Sometimes even the coolest bands on the planet take risks. Canadian indie multi-instrumentalist sextet Arcade Fire already have an impressive award-winning trilogy of albums, taking the journey from death and family (Funeral), through dark oppression and doubt (Neon Bible), to tales of social angst and community (The Suburbs). The follow-up Reflektor continues this momentum. What began as a short collection of songs (believe it or not) has become a 75 minute double album of ambitious self-indulgent electronica-infused bombastic brilliance. Almost.
From the opening title track, it is clear that Reflektor is the ubiquitous 'new direction'. James Murphy (of LCD Soundsystem) adds his skills as co-producer, and his vital presence is elsewhere, most evidently here. This is smooth indie-disco with Win Butler and Régine Chassagne sharing vocal duties (Chassagne in French and English), a wild juxtaposition of quiet verses and explosive chorus, with electronic flourishes building to a muddy mesh of sounds and vocals to the halfway point. The affect is startling with brass, guitars and ever-present 'Murphy' drums; then David Bowie appears on vocals for a cameo. Then the final few minutes, builds to an equally evocative climax. We Exist, while not as stylised as the title track, uses many of the same elements with added Butler intensity and drive.
The dark, mysterious Flashbulb Eyes echoes Primal Scream's Swastika Eyes, while the Rara infused Here Comes The Night Time glides into an explosive section featuring a plethora of sounds and rhythms, vocals and drums, before settling for a sedate ending. In contrast, Normal Person fuses piercing guitars with fuzzy bass and pounding drums, before an unexpected choral finale. This is Arcade Fire's statement of identity: 'If that's what's normal, I don't want to know', then 'I've never really ever met a normal person... like you...how do you do?'. Explosive and brilliant songwriting. The first moment of weakness arrives with You Already Know. Absurdly framed with ego-boosting Jonathan Ross samples, this is staple upbeat sweet and sour Arcade Fire. Likewise, Joan Of Arc stumbles into a well-intentioned but clumsy pop song, with more Chassagne and an odd, disjointed arrangement.
Part II brings the second part of Here Comes The Night Time, and a calmer feel to the album, continuing with the enchanting pair of Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice) and It's Never Over (Oh Orpheus) - check your Greek mythology for more information. The former has a beguiling arrangement, melodic with gorgeous backing vocals, acoustic guitars and choral outro. The latter is built from harsher guitars and drums, with an electronic skeleton and punchy vocals, like a song in negative - soft, quiet choruses and big, brash verses. This is Arcade Fire at their most adventurous. And with 23 minutes to go, the final trio fails to disappoint. Porno is dark and menacing, tinged with stark cold keyboards and sharp strings. Butler delivers a superb vocal, all range and strength and the ending is a magnificent transformation from the song's beginnings. Afterlife is also impressive, with driving drums, obscure backing vocals and pulsing keyboards, with the vocals blending to create new instruments and sounds. And closer Supersymmetry belies its 11 minute running time as a subtle, soft, delicate ballad with a five minute ambient, barely audible, outro. Right at the end of the album this feels like a missed opportunity to fill the album with a massive stadium-rocking finale.
Reflektor isn't so much a risk, as a calculated and inspired move to embrace something different. And not one of those albums that is easy to 'get' immediately but its main strength is Arcade Fire managing to retain a unique, compelling identity within a musical shift - something many have achieved with considerable success, most notably U2 with Achtung Baby. While the songs here are quite different, and do not always deliver, the similarities and results are apparent. Naturally, reviews will describe Reflektor as brave and audacious (which will earn some empathy) or that it's just previous albums given the electronic treatment. It is neither. This is planned and focused, the sound of order within chaos, stylish and crafted. Reflektor is the sound of Arcade Fire remaining both cool and ambitious.