And so like Eurydice following Orpheus across the icy underworld waters, we are blindly led into new and bewildering territory by Arcade Fire. It is far too old a cliché to start commenting on the band ‘not resting on their laurels’, yet it shouldn’t be forgotten that there is a sincerely brave and bizarre streak running through this record. At a glance it is their most ‘fun’ record, only large portions of it are far more apocalyptic than ‘Neon Bible’, more longing than ‘The Suburbs’ and more maudlin than ‘Funeral’. It is a confusing journey, but such a rewarding one.
Notably ‘Reflektor’ has some colossal and immediately identifiable tracks. ‘Reflektor’, ‘We Exist’, ‘Here Comes the Night Time’ and ‘Afterlife’ all provide the anthemic quota. ‘Here Comes the Night Time’ is a particular highlight, a blistering six and a half minute dub/disco epic that communicates the band’s Haitian connection far more directly than any of their previous work. ‘Afterlife’ and ‘Reflektor’ both simmer with a contained cynical exuberance, that manages to dance whilst crying.
Much of the rest of the album is more restless. ‘Awful Sound’ and ‘Porno’ are two examples where this restlessness is packed tightly into low, clattering beats that drive Win Butler’s snarled lyricism. In the case of ‘Awful Sound’ this containment is given a glorious, rousing release, ‘Porno’ however utilises the tension to a far more restrained and sinister effect. Butler’s voice clearly dominates the record, with Régine Chassagne’s spirited vocals finding a home soaked in reverb, courting Butler’s melodies from the shadows. Their marriage in life, as ever, gives these operatic exchanges a thrillingly real context.
‘Normal Person’, ‘Flashbulb Eyes’ and ‘You Already Know’ are the most 'un-Arcade Fire' moments on the two disc album. They are unruly and chaotic but, whereas ‘Power Out’ or ‘Month of May’ drew chaos from passion, the likes of ‘Normal Person’ find boisterousness in honestly not giving a fuck. They seem unedited and somewhat unmanageable at first, but during repeat listens they are clearly the lifeblood, connecting the sprawling ‘prog-disco’ of the rest of the album.
Sprawling is the word that should apply to a one and a quarter hour double record, yet it doesn’t. The whole piece is too uneasy and shifts far too readily for that to apply. James Murphy’s production has undoubtedly had a cataclysmic effect on the album’s pace. He has complimented the earthy and ecclesiastic subjects that Arcade Fire have toyed with for so long, with a new sense of urgency. The albums scope is varied, and nuanced as it is bombastic. Currently the band are sitting ducks. After 2010’s Grammy Winning broken-American-dream epic ‘The Suburbs’, the band were easily going to be accused of ‘retreading familiar territory’. As it stands, they might well be accused of making something over long, ungainly or even...pretentious. But you know what, we are short of pretension in mainstream music and lest we forget that Arcade Fire are now firmly in the mainstream psyche.
This album is exceptional, but it makes you work for it. Many will deride them for that, and arguably some may be justified in complaining that the record is too long or lacking in instant memorability. Arcade Fire aren’t listening though, and its important they don’t. In order to produce work of this scope and unwavering experimentation it is paramount that they, like Orpheus, never stop to look behind them.
Words: Angus Harrison