Let’s get this out of the way: Reflektor is easily the worst thing Arcade Fire have done. It’s a conclusion that runs counter to the crushing hype, the immense buildup, the crazed fanaticism that has surrounded the impending release of the band’s fourth proper album. And, honestly, there aren’t many groups that deserve such attention more than Arcade Fire. Their first three records are all brilliant, easy to categorize as Great Albums. The group’s apex was their beloved and emotional debut Funeral, but the subsequent releases nearly reach the same dizzying heights.
To date, the Arcade Fire experience has often been about Big Moments. From the start of Funeral, their songs have been packed with dramatic crescendos, pretty strings, driving rhythms, and obvious plays on the listener’s emotions. Luckily for us, the game plan always worked. “Wake Up” was a a U2-sized anthem and it was impossible to keep from falling in love. Neon Bible’s “Keep the Car Running” played like a wiser version of the band, giving a darker, deeper sound. Even the concept-oriented The Suburbs ensured that the message and the music were linked, be it in the flourishes of “Rococo” or the Blondie-homage “Sprawl II.”
On Reflektor, there’s just something missing, something that doesn’t feel up to par for Arcade Fire. The sound and the statements don’t align perfectly, the ferocity and the emotional heft are missing. The problems start with the album’s length. Like too many double albums, the cliched bloat rears its ugly head. The opening song and title track “Reflektor” is a pleasant-enough Talking Heads-type jam, but it carries on for over 7 minutes. There just isn’t enough here to keep your full attention; an abbreviated version would accomplish the same thing without the threat of stagnation. It’s good, but just not focused.
“Here Comes the Night Time” starts with an exciting thrust of guitar and drum before slowing into a low-to-mid-tempo pattern. Unfortunately, the balance just isn’t right. The slowed section carries on and cycles for far too long; we only hear a slight sample of the accelerated version of the track before it’s all over.
But if it were just a matter of trimming the fat on a few songs, the experience wouldn’t be so far from old Arcade Fire. Instead, there are multiple songs that just don’t click. “Flashbulb Eyes” is a dub-sound song that never picks up and is overly absorbed in instrumental distortion. It doesn’t go anywhere interesting. “Normal Person” strays closest to typical rock but gets lost in its own forced mythology of normal vs abnormal people. That lead guitar is also a mess.
The worst three-song stretch comes with “Joan of Arc”, “Here Comes the Night Time II,” and “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice).” The first is a twisted take on usual Arcade Fire anthemics, but the chorus doesn’t pop and the end is bizarre. “Here Comes the Night Time II” is plodding and doesn’t achieve the kind of emotional resonance it’s aiming at. “Awful Sound” tries to blend synth noises with strings, but the result just doesn’t settle well.
Thankfully, Arcade Fire do not fall completely flat. Two late-album highlights help Reflektor recover from the terrible start of disc two. “It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus)” is an brilliant, inspired song that sounds exactly like the kind of James Murphy-Arcade Fire collaboration I’d hoped for coming into the record. Strong rhythm and bass drive the track into a funky, endearing place. “Afterlife” also impresses, with a pulsing energy that is lacking on many other songs from the record.
Where does that leave Reflektor? By merely having “bad” or “not good” songs, the album becomes the worst in the Arcade Fire catalog. No other record from the band has had more than one low point, and no tracks have been as terrible as the 3-song sequence bridging the two discs. Furthermore, with a lengthy playtime and a lack of significant high points (“It’s Never Over” and “Afterlife” aside), the record is constantly sagging. A trimmed playlist and truncated versions of the current material would have done wonders.
Is Reflektor good? Mostly. Do I recommend listening to it? Yes, but not enthusiastically.