More than any other era of recorded music since Edison’s wax cylinders, the modern listener enjoys complete freedom in how they acquire music. Spotify, iTunes, piracy, radio, YouTube — the list goes on and on. But the one format that seems to be the most rare nowadays are the “little silver discs” that Arcade Fire sings about on the title track of their newest album, Reflektor.
In this fragmented, electronic age, few albums hold the same sort of commanding power and audacity that Reflektor does. The album brings to mind similarly massive art rock albums from the bygone days of album-oriented rock: The Wall, Tusk and Exile on Main St. More than any of their first three albums, Arcade Fire wants Reflektor to be an artistic statement, never minding the pretentions of that concept.
What exactly, then, are they stating that takes an hour and 15 minutes to say? The band’s first three albums tackle universal themes: family, religion, alienation. Reflektor takes aim at another: distance. The title track and album opener lambastes the social media revolution, asking, “We’re still connected, but are we even friends?” The distance grows no less unbridgeable by the time of the album closer, “Supersymmetry,” when married singers Win Butler and Régine Chassagne lament that they “heard a voice like an echo / but it came from you.” In between the two, the lyrics suffer some, especially on tracks such as the hard-rocking “Normal Person” where Butler lamely asks, “Is anything as strange as a normal person?” But overall, the album’s lyrics gracefully depict emotions that fit just as easily a teenage suburbanite as Orpheus and Eurydice.
The ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice finds new life as the album’s two centerpieces “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)” and “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus).” Arcade Fire has often used narrative links between their songs, from the “Neighborhood” suite from their 2004 debut, Funeral, to the full concept album that was 2010’s The Suburbs. In these two songs, they recast the tragic Greek lovers as a young couple “born in a little town.” But even more than the Orpheus songs, the two parts of “Here Comes The Night Time” represent the true lyrical centerpieces of the album. Disc one includes the bright, dub-influenced first half that assaults the hypocrises of missionaries such as those who travel to Haiti. The second disc’s second half takes a musical turn away from the sun and mourns “how low we go, my friends / feels like it never ends.”
The Caribbean nation of Haiti plays a larger part in this album than any other Arcade Fire album. Female lead singer Régine Chassagne comes from Haitian roots and Funeral featured the highlight track “Haiti,” but the group never truly explored the nation from a musical angle rather than a lyrical one. During the tour for The Suburbs, however, Butler and Chassagne took an extended trip to Haiti and encountered the area’s local “rara” music. The band then brought rara into their already-diverse sonic palette — an influence that rings most clearly on tracks such as “Here Comes The Night Time” and “Afterlife.”
The biggest musical change between Reflektor and the band’s previous work is the added presence of James Murphy as producer. Murphy formerly acted as lead singer and songwriter for LCD Soundsystem, a short-lived band that released three masterpiece albums in the early 2000s and disbanded as quickly. Murphy brings his familiar styles to Reflektor, a change that led some fans to begin calling the band Arcade Soundsystem. In proper LCD Soundsystem fashion, the average track length here exceeds six minutes. Also, tracks such as “Porno” and “Flashbulb Eyes” feature the same odd synthesized percussion for which Murphy became famous. But most importantly, Murphy maintains Arcade Fire’s trademark layered, emotional sound and gives it a groove and a physicality.
Though there might not be many little silver discs of Reflektor floating around to be listened to, the album still represents an attempt at a singular, cohesive work: an artistic statement from a band infamous for artistic statements. Even though there’s not much of a chance that you or anyone else will listen to it in order, there’s something beautiful and profound about these 14 tracks. The album may not hold the highest highs of Funeral, but it easily ranks as one of the best albums of the year. Just try looking inside. God knows what you might find.