Arcade Fire tread into new territory with fourth album
Since forming at the turn of the century, Montreal-based indie act Arcade Fire has made several impressions. While the group captured hungry audiences with the baroque bombast of its first two albums, Win Butler and his bandmates perplexed pop-saturated ears and manicured eyebrows at the 2011 Grammys, where Arcade Fire performed and subsequently snagged Album of the Year. But as newfound fame found the bunch, it seemed as if they struggled with the cacophony of sound they’d constructed. With nowhere to venture but the unknown, Arcade Fire piled into a Jamaican studio last year and created “Reflektor,” the group’s fourth album that befuddles listeners in pleasant, sometimes pretentious fashion.
Like The Decemberists, Arcade Fire has long been considered one of indie rock’s intellectual behemoths, choosing classical instruments over noise to spin florid tales. Surprisingly, most of these elements are absent on “Reflektor.” The album is an electronic ode to everything from authentic Haitian music (provided by band co-founder Regine Chassagne) to Greek mythology, with former LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy serving as producer and drum-machine aficionado. This apparent shift to semi-poppy, computerized sounds may prove stifling for impatient fans looking for the outfit that once was, but for the most part, the group treads an even path.
Perhaps a little appeal lies in influences since certain riffs and twists echo that of Arcade Fire’s predecessors. “You Already Know” begins with an infectious bass similar to that of the Replacements’ “Let It Be,” while “Normal Person” retains a vibe similar to The Velvet Underground’s “What Goes On.” Whether this was intentional is a mystery, as Butler and Chassagne attribute inspiration to academic essays and old films. But it definitely works for “Reflektor,” especially since many listeners may be grasping for familiarity among all the blips.
There’s also a distinct split between the two halves, which can easily provoke a few love-hate responses. Like most albums, side A is used to lure listeners with sometimes conventional hooks and easily recollected lyrics, with the titular track serving up a complicated yet catchy score. But as “Joan of Arc” – another highlight – segues into “Here Comes the Night Time, P. II,” the mood changes. Instead of bouncing along joyously, the beats slow to a crawl, providing for a melancholy backdrop as Butler questions his life experience in painful terms. Though it doesn’t drudge on with vague misery, “Reflektor’s” second installment is far more nebulous and emotional than the first, allowing for some much-needed balance.
Despite arriving at a definitive turning point that may mean the loss of a few fans, Arcade Fire has yet to show any sign of slowing. The stark shift in sound may initially seem off-putting for people lusting for a consistent catalog, but Butler, Chassagne and their colleagues continue to drum up critical success. While “Reflektor” doesn’t necessarily live up to the ambition found in earlier work, it’s still solid and beautiful. As Butler wails in part one of “Here Comes in the Night Time:” “when they hear the beat coming from the street, they lock the door … but if there’s no music in heaven, then what’s it for?”