3 stars (out of 4)
After ascending from scuffling Montreal band (2001-03) to Internet sensation (2004-05) to Grammy-winning arena rockers (2011), Arcade Fire presses the reboot button.
“Reflektor” (Merge) – the title itself suggests mirrorballs spinning inside a disco – takes to the dancefloor. In its disruptive sprawl, it echoes the fourth albums by the Talking Heads (“Remain in Light”) and the Clash (“Sandinista”), both issued in 1980. If a record can sound simultaneously lighter and more disturbing than anything the band has done before, “Reflektor” qualifies. It’s a tale of two albums: one bold and propulsive, the second slower, less focused and more problematic.
Arcade Fire pushes away the more linear rock approach of its earlier albums for something weirder and more rhythmic. The double-album pumps up the groove, flirts with the shadows, and lets the songs zig, zag and run on and on, not always for the better. Eight of the first 12 tracks clock in at more than 5 minutes, and an 11-minute electronic bubblebath of sound finishes things off.
Much was made of the band’s collaboration with producer James Murphy, who masterminded LCD Soundsystem, but Murphy insists that by the time he started working with the sextet it was already pushing in this beat-driven, more blown-out direction. Still, the title track sounds like it could’ve fit alongside the Rapture and Black Dice on Murphy’s DFA label a decade ago with its bouncy bass line and house-music piano chords -- plus a cameo vocal from David Bowie, no less. Arcade Fire’s Win Butler asks no small questions, and he lays out one of the themes for this album: What is real? “It’s just a reflection of a reflection of a reflection,” he mutters, while the beat swirls around him.
“Flashbulb Eyes” continues the hall-of-mirrors effect, with its ping-ponging beats and reverberating tones suggesting a dub-reggae instrumental. The troubling refrain echoes from inside a cavern: “You know I’ve got nothin’ to hide, you know I’ve got nothin’.”
With its whip-crack guitars and rubbery bass, “We Exist” bounces uneasily toward cacophony, as noise overtakes the feel-good vibe. Butler declares his allegiance to outsiders, but with a sinister twist: “Down on your knees, begging us please, praying that we don’t exist.” The conformity-bashing restlessness in Butler’s narrators ties in with music that flips the traditional rock hierarchy, by pushing Jeremy Gara’s drums and Tim Kingsbury’s bass into the foreground of the mix while the vocals compete with noisy keyboards for space.
Drums hurtle and bass lines belch like foghorns amid the distorted vocals and brittle guitars of “Here Comes the Night Time.” A crude, rock ‘n’ roll swagger animates “Normal Person,” with Butler hissing, “And they will break you down until everything’s normal.” The band fights back on “You Already Know,” with its skipping Motown beat, and the punky “Joan of Arc.”
The hooks arrive more reluctantly on Disc 2. It’s built around two tracks tracing the travails of that ancient Greek power couple Orpheus and Eurydice. In “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice),” a slow, woozy sing-along is shattered by the sound of a jet screaming toward a crash. But mostly the slower-moving, more contemplative songs fail to shake off their ghosts. “Porno” echoes the sparse, Gothic electro-pop of Depeche Mode and “Afterlife” conjures New Order’s proto dance-rock, but neither track boasts the melodic flair of the earlier bands. And the snoozy “Supersymmetry” is an epic downer.
The finish provides a slow comedown from the buzz of the album’s first half – which by itself ranks with Arcade Fire’s best, most challenging work. The textural experiments of Part 2 can’t keep pace. Or as Win Butler might say, a reflection of a reflection of a reflection.