Styles: baroque pop for discotheque cathedrals, voodoo funeral dirges, perverted neoclassicism
Others: Talking Heads, LCD Soundsystem, Fela Kuti, Hercules and Love Affair, the “Berlin Trilogy”
“Today abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality.”
– Jean Baudrillard, 1981
It’s just a reflection of a reflection of a reflection of a reflection. But I see you on the other side…
– Arcade Fire, 2013
A splintering moon hangs suspended in a dark place, shards of lights dancing obliquely across unseen architecture. Bright rays interlace through empty space, tracing scattered shattered webs of fleeting coherence. Fumbling stumbling groping through the mirrored void, you wind your way through mazes of electromagnetic thread. Leading you onward through the enclosing synthetic halflight. And you may ask yourself, Well, how did I get here?
Reflektor is a sprawling behemoth of an album. It’s a two-disc, 76-minute, myriad-genred, fragmented mess. It draws variously from synth pop, art rock, Greek mythology, optics, particle physics, Haitian Karnaval, 19th-century existentialism, and contemporary social media — all without ever settling comfortably into any single mode. It’s an elusive, frustrating album. It is also a masterpiece. It’s Arcade Fire’s most ambitious, most complex work to date, a monumental work in an era of minor projects: a capital-a Album for the Spotify generation. It is at once fractured and cohesive, unbalanced and symmetric. It’s a glorious paradox of an album, but like the beams of a disco ball rotating in the crowded darkness, the sporadic scatterings of radiance are abstracted projections of a beautiful geometry. Reflections of a sublime architecture.
Indeed, for all its complexity and contradiction, Reflektor occupies a logical niche in the Arcade Fire timeline. After all, if we were to parse out a common theme leading us across the four-album stretch from “Neighborhood #1” to “Supersymmetry” nine years later, it would be the ongoing struggle to reclaim a sense of origin. It’s fitting then that it should all begin at a funeral. Much has been written on Arcade Fire’s now canonical debut — its seemingly universal catharsis, its continuing influence — but what was Funeral really about? Growing up? The loss of innocence? Watching the ones we love die one by one? Superficially, yes. But we can see how all these constituent elements point toward something just beneath the surface. They point towards a profound anxiety that we might be losing track of where we came from. When we come to the line “My family tree is losing all its leaves” on album closer “In the Backseat,” are we mourning the death of our relatives? Or are we mourning our own death, the severing of the umbilical line tying us to what came before?
And yet even in death, the origin remained preserved. Embalmed in a sealed mausoleum. We have left the Neighborhood, cast out of Eden, and left to wander the world, but Funeral preserved the mythology intact. By sentimentalizing a romantic vision of the past, it became an origin story — a document we could all point to and cry This is where we came from! This is what we’ve lost! Indeed, this was the appeal of Funeral. By creating a collective template for each of us to plot our own lost history, Arcade Fire constructed a narrative framework that was at once intensely personal and seemingly universal.
It wasn’t until The Suburbs that this origin story was seriously called into question. After years of lying safe and dormant, the coffin was unearthed and cracked open. We finally return to the neighborhood of our childhood. Only it isn’t how we remembered it. The snowy hamlet in the myth is now a monstrous sprawl of suburban development, an endless row of flattened cardboard cutouts. And we realize that, of course, it always was. Because the cozy world of hidden tunnels and gleeful power outages — the one we mourned so deeply — only existed in the halcyon glow of a distorted myth. This is how we get the reactionary myth of The Suburbs: a lurid magazine-gloss creation story simultaneously contradicting and revising Funeral’s bucolic ideal.
If Funeral and The Suburbs in turn lamented and demystified the question of our collective origin, Reflektor is Arcade Fire’s first shot into utter oblivion. The origin isn’t simply misplaced or distorted. It no longer exists. “Trapped in a prison, in a prism of light. Alone in the darkness, the darkness of white.” Like a beam of light bounded between two mirrors, we have entered a recursive space where things are perpetually deflected but never created — a reflective dimension where images and ideas scatter through coordinate-free space along untraceable paths. It’s a paradoxical, carnivalesque space we’ve found ourselves in — a world where cameras steal a piece of your soul; a world where children learn about love from the women on the computer screen; a world where we’ve never been more connected, or more far apart.
It’s an abstract framework, but it’s encoded directly into the album’s composition. While Arcade Fire’s earlier work has found the band experimenting across a range of styles and genres, each previous album has retained its own sense of narrative cohesion, carving out a specific sub-genre — the pastoral folk-rock of Funeral, the noir surrealism of Neon Bible, the technicolor retroism of The Suburbs. Reflektor shatters this model, blending together different genres, motifs, modes of discourse in a single cacophonous collage. Tracks alternate freely between pop, reggae, electronica, afrobeat, Krautrock — mixing in sweeping orchestrals, bits of found sound, a simulated live track or two, and a David Bowie cameo. It’s a tangled network of images, each one ripped out of context, drained of history, and placed into an interconnected matrix of signification. The result is a heteroglot utterance whose meaning exists somewhere outside the bounds of etymology. Translated individually, the collection of words is meaningless; it’s only when appreciated together that they begin to make a sort of beautiful, schizophrenic sense.
An album like Reflektor is a rare thing, but it is not entirely without precedent. Comparisons have been made to Talking Heads’ Remain In Light, and there are moments when the connection seems particularly fitting. Win Butler plays a surprisingly convincing (albeit uncharacteristically morose) David Byrne on tracks like “We Exist” and “Normal Person,” but the real credit goes to James Murphy for his brilliant turn as the Brian Eno-esque mastermind behind the scenes. It’s an utterly bizarre pairing, but just like so much of the album, it’s just crazy enough to work. Brilliantly, I might add. And while early claims that this would be Arcade Fire’s Kid A now seem more than a little trite, the scatterbrained backdrifting of Radiohead’s sorely under-appreciated Hail To The Thief seems like a close cousin. Same goes for the The White Album — arguably the original fractured rock masterwork. It’s a formula that hasn’t worked this well since The Knife pulled it off earlier this year, and maybe Scott Walker before that. But now I’m treading on dangerous ground…
Appreciated in context, the decision to make Reflektor a double album makes complete sense. 2013 has been a great year for the bifurcated form — Shaking the Habitual and Drifters / Love Is The Devil being two of the best examples — but Reflektor pulls it off with a dexterity that is nothing short of stunning. This isn’t a double album out of necessity, an overlarge work clumsily bursting beyond the capacity of a single disc. Nor is it simply two separate albums spliced together. Like two sides of a coin, the two 40-minute halves are at once distinct and inextricably intertwined. While the first disc winds its way sporadically through the humid alleys and hazy bars of a multi-dimensional shantytown, the second half explodes outward upon the magnificent vista of symphonic discotheque. It’s an impressive transition, and on any other album, the blistering hard-rock of “Joan of Arc” and the beautifully orchestral “Here Comes the Night Time II” would be completely incongruous neighbors. On Reflektor, they are Scylla and Charybdis, each one bounding an edge of the precarious divide.
Or maybe Orpheus and Eurydice would be a more fitting analogy. There’s a beautiful poignancy to it, no? Two figures standing one in front of the other, close enough to touch yet separated across a silent barrier, unable to look at one another. It’s a beautiful image, one that plays out on both the album’s cover and on the latter disc’s paired parentheticals. And yet it’s a loose end that never really gets tied up. There are moments when the symbolism seems to offer the key to figuring it all out, as if the album was merely a postmodern adaptation of a classical form. But the moment you grab a hold of that thread and follow it, you find yourself back where you started — or perhaps on another thread altogether. If this all points back to Orpheus’ tragic loss — the moment he turns around and loses the woman he loves — why does “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)” sound like The Beatles by way of J Spaceman and “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)” like New Order via Hercules and Love Affair? For all the beautiful symmetry between form and content, there are moments when the two simply slip away from each other like a tenuous semiotic system. And ultimately, that’s the perverse beauty of it all. No one image contains the meaning of the album, but each feeds into and helps define the system. Don’t turn around! Because the moment you look at it, the wave function collapses — the sum is reduced to a fragment. A mere projection of the complex whole.
And so I cast my five sputtering flashbulbs futilely into the broken darkness. They burn brightly for only a moment. But in that split-second, I could have sworn I saw something off in the distance, through the obfuscating glow of the liquid crystal displays, past the mirrors and the monitors. A smattering of dead pixels perhaps. A false refraction. But if I didn’t know any better, I’d say it looked just like snow. Falling in a familiar place. And then everything cuts to black.
02. We Exist
03. Flashbulb Eyes
04. Here Comes the Night Time
05. Normal Person
06. You Already Know
07. Joan of Arc
01. Here Comes the Night Time II
02. Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)
03. It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)