james debate
james debate

Tuesday 3 December 2013

Genre Indie Rock
Label Merge
Producers James Murphy, Markus Dravs, Arcade Fire

arcade fire reflektor album orpheus

Arcade Fire emerged in the middle of the last decade, around the same time that bands like The Killers, Metric, and other ilk of the stadium-sized indie rock persuasion started to take the genre mainstream.

Of this new wave, Arcade Fire would have been considered one of the least likely for commercial success. Their debut album, Funeral, received high critical acclaim but only modest sales. After all their form broke more artistic ground than their more mainstream competition; albums structured into something more akin to classical movements, songs named with numbers as variants on the same theme, that usually exceeded the 3-4 minute pop song standard. Their equally acclaimed follow up Neon Bible continued in the same fashion. There was clearly something of ambition about the band, releasing singles that were more daring than their contemporaries, often featuring elaborate multi-instrumental compositions and dense thematics. The band was famously championed by music legend David Bowie, and It's easy to see why with such similar artistic sensibilities and musical complexities.

The turning point in terms of wider awareness was album number 3: The Suburbs. This was the album that propelled Arcade Fire from underdogs to one of the world's biggest bands, sweeping end of year awards, including that of The Ephemeric. A tremendously poignant album in its own right, but what really impressed critics most was the band's stylistic progress. Many flavours of the month have made the mistake of following up a successful first album simply by copying its style in the hopes that lightning will strike twice. What separates them from the artists with true longevity is evolution, not being afraid to change or innovate their sound. The truly great names in music, like Bowie, McCartney, Radiohead, have all shown that they can do this without losing the quality that made them so successful. With The Suburbs Arcade Fire showed that they can do this as well.

If The Suburbs was the album that brought the band mainstream success, then Reflektor attempts the delicate balancing act of venturing into more experimental territory without alienating their new larger fanbase. To accomplish this, frontman Win Butler has drafted the unlikely collaborator of James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem fame as producer. While it is too early to judge whether they can successfully straddle these two worlds, what is quite clear is that Arcade Fire are not just back to their creatively adventurous best, but dead set on creating a piece of work unlike anything you've heard before. What follows is a full account of The Ephemeric's interpretation and reaction to the album, and it's a long read so buckle up.

Reflektor is more than just ambitious; it takes inspiration from Greek mythology (Orpheus and Eurydice), 19th century philosophy (Kirkegaard) and more musical influences than I could possibly list here, positing big existential questions of love, death and idolatry from antiquity through to multimedia gods of the modern era. With a piece of work so layered it's impressive then that Arcade Fire manage to not make this a sprawling self-indulgent mess. Rather the above themes are linked through the common aspect of human relationships: the relationship between lovers, the relationship between artist and audience, the relationship between authority and society, and the superficial relationships of the social media age.

Arcade Fire, like few bands of the current generation, still believe in producing an album as a full length statement, rather than a pick-n-mix of potential hit singles. The album is divided into two Volumes, the first wild and full of life, the second more introspective and ambiguous. This dichotomy takes inspiration from Kirkegaard's idea of the "reflective age" (hence the name of this album) which posits that society alternates between two distinct eras, one of passion and revolution, the other of reflection and understanding.

Certainly the thematic centrepiece of the first Volume and the album as a whole is the stunning opening track and lead single Reflektor, a 7 minute anthem of the digital age covered with Murphy's unique musical fingerprints. A refreshingly dark, brassy disco groove that builds slowly to an explosive coda, Butler talks of obsession and dependency particularly dissecting the relationship between artist and audience.

"Reflektor" as a term is applied in various contexts throughout the album, and while many are foreshadowed in this song's lyrics, here it primarily describes the role of an artist as a quasi-religious idol whose songs are merely a reflection of the listeners themselves. There are strong allusions as well to social media as putting up further barriers between people, and the venomous affect it has on detaching us still further from the reality into our own narcissistic little bubbles. The slow-building composition finally comes to a head after a good 5 minutes, its seething paranoia and desperation eventually climaxing in a magnificent cacophony of piano and strings as Butler's vocals (backed by none other than David Bowie who reportedly loved the song so much he demanded to be included) slowly fade into insignificance against the greater noise.

This serves as a thematic introduction to the album's high concept before bringing us back down to the more grounded details of Volume I. Each track casts a scathing spotlight upon failed authority and questions the hypocrisy of societal expectations. These songs are bold and direct, songs of revolution and upheaval, songs of change and idealism. This is the passionate age.

Questions are asked of each of us, beginning with We Exist's 1980s-tinged critique of society's hypocrisy before the interesting, yet fairly forgettable Flashbulb Eyes and its clear comments on the invasive and public nature that life has taken with social media. Things spice up again with Here Comes the Night Time, opening with a frenetic carnival-infused riff before lulling into a deceptively calm reggae jam. The next 7 minutes brings Arcade Fire's call for revolution to crisis-strewn Haiti and levels a scathing attack upon the failure of responsible authority in general. A venomous bass-line evokes foreboding storm clouds through the otherwise calm melody before climaxing in what can only be described as a carnival crossed with a monsoon. The album detours from its more eclectic musical stylings with the much more poppy, Suburbs-eque tracks Normal Person, and You Already Know, focusing back on society and dead-end romantic relationships respectively.

Volume I then reaches its conclusion with Joan of Arc in suitably robust fashion, opening with a punk rock flourish that quickly gives way to an infectiously catchy rock song that harkens back to the questions of art raised in the album's opening track and appropriately evokes the imagery of  Joan of Arc, one of the most famous anti-establishment icons in all of history. Joan of Arc is certainly one of the more "fun" songs on the album, with a bouncy beat, playful "doo-wop" vocals in the chorus and one of the best bass-lines ever written, yet as the final track to the album's opening movement it's lyrically dark enough to foreshadow the coming change in tone.

So at the end of Volume I there is certainly plenty to digest, and plenty to be impressed by. That said, at this point we'd been given the impression of an album that's certainly very good, but not yet great. The second volume is where the album really hits its mark.

And so begins the reflective age on a very different note in Here Comes the Night Time II. A low-key reprise of the earlier song, its lonely, sedate tone serves as an ironic reflection of the earlier's upbeat carnival sounds and introduces us to the more introspective side of Reflektor. Where Volume I told of revolution and the here-and-now, Volume II takes a more thoughtful view, analysing the tropes of love, loss and the end of life.

The next two songs Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice) and It's Never Over (Hey Orpheus) are best considered as a two-parter, ostensibly in reference to the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. The first a song of unrequited love from the point of view of the Eurydice-obsessed Aristaeus, the second a duet chronicling the failed escape from Hades of Orpheus and Eurydice. But as with most of this album these songs are more than mere narrative apocrypha, the core themes applied broadly to modern society. The first as a song of unrequited love is instantly relatable, while It's Never Over's message bears a more general statement. Arguably It's Never Over encompasses the full tilt in mood from Volume I to Volume II, extolling the virtue of patience and perspective, thinking long term about life as a whole as opposed to the instant gratification of Volume I's day-to-day passions. It helps that these songs both sound fantastic, the former starting off as a dark lullaby that slowly transforms into a Beatles-esque crowd-rouser, and the latter dawning with sparkling synth overtures before breaking down into a bizarre hybrid between dirty electro-funk and soft acoustic yearning.

This all comes to a head in the album's climax, Afterlife. Much like Sprawl II in The Suburbs, No Cars Go in Neon Bible or Rebellion in Funeral, Afterlife is the focal point of the album. All the album's themes, angst, and other emotions lead up to this song's cathartic release. Explicitly this song can be said to allude to both death and the end of relationships, but Afterlife is more broadly a song about letting go and moving on. Moving on from the end of a relationship, moving on from loss, moving on from any of the hardships of the world. It's exactly the song the album needed at this point, and it hits the note perfectly. Sure the song is followed by the more mellow Supersymmetry, and preceded by Porno, a song which doesn't really fit in anywhere, but this is essentially the conclusion of Reflektor.

And thus brings to a close Arcade Fire's artistic vision, a dichotomy between the passionate day-to-day focus of modern life and a reflective overview of life, death and the beyond. One can take away what they please from the album's messaging, but there's no doubt about the vast ambition on show, both from a narrative and musical perspective. This is an album that sounds unlike anything you've ever heard before and successfully provokes questions and self reflection in the listener. As an artistic feat it is a work of huge accomplishment and sublime mastery of the form. Certainly the best album of this year, and arguably one of the best of many years.

Must Listen (Note - we strongly recommend against listening to songs out of context with this album, but if you insist) :
Here Comes the Night Time II
Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)
It's Never Over (Hey Orpheus)

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