Arcade Fire — Reflektor

Sonovox · Merge |
ABBA through the looking glass
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Reflektor was ranked ninth in my Top Ten Albums I Wrote About in 2017, and was awarded the Brazen Boson for Least Gratuitous Invocation of Particle Physics

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When choosing what to write about, I try to strike a balance. Some weeks I shine a spotlight on underrated music that deserves a wider audience. Other weeks, I hope to tease out some original observations on a well-known album, while offering my own perspective on what has already been said.

So last Friday, when that esteemed collective of Montrealers released their fifth LP, an opportunity presented itself to dive into a discography I’ve never explored before, to toss my two cents into a famous and beloved and Grammy-winning fountain, and to ratchet up that sweet sweet view counter that drips delicious attention directly into my self-esteem.

I quite enjoyed Everything Now. It’s an invitingly shiny morsel of xenon-bright disco-rock-pop, and its fascination with cycles and reprises tickled my pretentious artsiness bone quite pink. In the name of research, I dutifully downloaded the entire Arcade Fire back catalogue — one can hardly refuse to appreciate the context surrounding the most mainstream indie band in the world — and I have summarily entered their excellent debut Funeral into high rotation. As I said of Fiona Apple’s most recent offering, it takes a great deal of effort to sound this effortless. They somehow manage to balance an elegant string ensemble and a delicate harp against chunky scrappy screamy rock, and it is just so damn good. I may be thirteen years late to the party, but that party is still going strong. Neon Bible and The Suburbs appealed to me substantially less, too scattershot and knotty to straighten out into a whole as forthright as Funeral or Everything Now.

Then I listened to Reflektor.

Then I listened to Reflektor again.

Then I opened this year’s preliminary top ten draft and placed it very close to the top.

Reflektor clocks in at almost an hour and a half, many tracks barrelling well past the six-minute mark. The cover alludes to Eurydice and Orpheus, of Greek mythology, an allusion that continues through a two-part suite that forms the centrepiece of the album’s second disc. The tracklist sprawls from medieval martyrdom to cutting-edge theoretical physics, namechecking both Joan of Arc and supersymmetry. The lyric sheet intercuts copious quantities of untranslated French.

This is an album that does not fuck around.

Others have drawn the obligatory comparisons to luminaries of classic rock, but I am forcefully reminded of Swedish superstars, the fabulous ABBA. With breathtaking efficiency, they blend half a dozen different genres into a smooth, seamless whole, sculpted into persistent hooks that alternate between the angular and the elliptical. But the primary common characteristic is the device of dual vocals, methodically partitioned. Arcade Fire is helmed by two co-vocalists, husband and wife, partners in crime, Win Butler and Régine Chassagne: he, wavering and choking; she, silkily slinking; the suffocating dark and a ribbon afloat on its tides.

A flaming torch has passed on, a torch of cheery latter-century pop-rock, spangled with twinkly disco balls of extravagance.

Only some terrible glitch has transpired. A cosmic overflow error has caused the colours of the universe to invert. The exotic irradiated beaches of Reflektor are illumined by a hollow, iridescent moon that shines beneath a frozen grey sea. Great columns of salt thrust high into the empty sky, far too tall, casting unshadows in too many directions. Monochrome figures are posed, stationary on the rippling grey sands. They bask in the black sun.

Reflektor is braced between the blur of a freezing misty daybreak and the sharp chill of inhaling it; cavernous negative space filled with projections of shadow and mighty crashes of white. ‘Flashbulb Eyes’ is a shattered tropical wasteland of bizarre space-reggae. ‘We Exist’ features a juddering hook spliced together from ‘na na na’s, like some demented inversion of ‘Hey Jude.’ ‘Here Comes the Night Time’ veers wildly between stately elegance and coked-up frenzy, its jolly saxophone warped into a foreboding foghorn alarm. ‘Afterlife’ begins with an utterance of its title, interrupts itself, then devotes its entire first verse to a parenthetical aside on the nature thereof. And on ‘Awful Sound (Oh, Eurydice),’ parallel screeches of some monstrous great hydra-eagle suddenly drop into a nonplussed groove.

I’ve never before been gaslit by my headphones.

And this is all to say nothing of the title track.

The album begins with a froth of white noise, which resolves itself into the tempo of a brisk stroll. A crisp drumkit settles in. Autotuned bongos bounce, recalling the geometric rubber pads of electronic toms.

A funky horn section swells. “I thought I found a way to enter,” croons Win, but the song immediately shrinks away, as if he has accidentally divulged confidential information. “But it’s just a reflektor,” Régine downplays nervously. “Just a reflektor,” agrees Win, not even waiting for her to finish. The brass rises again. “I thought I found the connector,” laments Win, and again his wife catches him. “But it’s just a reflektor,” she clarifies, and as before Win glosses: “Just a reflektor.”

The elastic snap of transition between instinct and thought stretches further as the song kicks up a gear. Bride and groom ricochet down a hall of mirrors. “It’s just a reflection / Of a reflection / Of a reflection,” they chant, Régine always one repetition behind.

“Thought you were praying to the resurrector.” This is too many times for a coincidence. Win is being compelled by something outside of himself. He pulls back once again. “Turns out it was just a reflektor.” He smirks, this time with an edge of menace. “Just a reflektor.” An automated response. Some arcane religious ritual.

The Lord be with you.
Shabbat shalom.
La ilaha ilallah.
Just a reflektor.

Has your reflection been somehow delayed? Or is your echo merely impatient? What could such unsynchronicity portend? That’s up to you. But be warned: the might of the Québécois is not to be underestimated.

There is no zealot like a convert, and I am enthralled.

Through syllogism and mythology, through salt and sand, through deepest black and blinding white, Reflektor is utterly mesmerising. It persists like a negative image behind the eyelids, a feature-length plunge through the frigid, blazing Canadian psyche.

Perhaps in this reversed world, you too will find some distraction, some relief, however temporary, from the long, hard northern winter. But don’t forget that you will eventually have to find your way back out. Who knows what lurks down there?

After all, it’s just a reflektor.