Wednesday, October 30, 2013

album review: 'reflektor' by arcade fire

The year was 2004, and indie rock was experiencing an unexpected and yet very welcome boom, courtesy of the success of acts like The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Modest Mouse, Franz Ferdinand, The Killers, and a collection of other strong singles and albums, all of which would have mixed to diminishing success throughout the rest of the decade. The band that left arguably the biggest mainstream cultural footprint would probably be The Killers, with the success of 'Mr. Brightside', 'Somebody Told Me', and 'All The Things That I Have Done' off of their great debut Hot Fuss, but the critical crosshairs were aimed at a very different band that also had their full-length debut that year, an album that would be widely acclaimed as one of the best of the decade.

Yes, of course we're talking about Arcade Fire and their legendary debut Funeral (well, actually their debut was a self-titled EP a year earlier, but whatever). I have to be honest here, for the longest time I avoided getting into Arcade Fire because there were a number of traits about the Canadian indie rock band that really pissed me off. They had a degree of arrogant, humourless pretentiousness which got insufferable in large doses, both vocalists could get more than a little grating, and the lyrics didn't seem nearly as deep or resonant as they clearly thought they were. Coupled with Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne's disparaging comments on how little he liked Arcade Fire's attitude, it put me off from looking into the band for a long time.

But when churning through my backlog, I decided to give the first three Arcade Fire albums a listen, and you know what? They're very good, possibly even great, and while I stand by all of my complaints, I do think the band has some real talents in composition and writing irresistibly catchy melodies with a wide variety of instruments. And say what you will about their lyrics - hit and miss though they are - they do have a fair amount of nuance in approaching big ideas which I can definitely appreciate. Funeral did a shockingly good job dissecting how human beings deal with death, and managed not to get bogged down in the bleakness of it all - I can definitely see why it is critically adored to this day. Neon Bible opted for the 'dark sophomore album' route and while it was significantly messier, it did a decent enough job - although the tonal dissonance between the lyrics and the instrumentation occasionally got very questionable. The Suburbs was perhaps Arcade Fire's simplest album in terms of instrumentation and melodies, but it paid huge dividends in a surprisingly nuanced portrayal of suburban life and problems that called to mind the roots rock and Americana of the mid-70s - and on top of that, you could buy into the fact that the sentiments driving the album came from a very real place (in other words, it should be no surprise The Suburbs is probably my favourite Arcade Fire album). So with that, I was a little encouraged going into their new album Reflektor, even despite the mixed critical opinions. How did it turn out?

Oh god, I'm going to get ripped apart for this... because this album is a real mess, and while there are a few bright spots, this album really doesn't work. What's interesting about Reflektor is that on their own, the individual elements that compose this album could have worked with the right assembly - but put together in this way, this album reveals itself as a messy, incoherent record that manages to really piss off more than it should. Every critic on the planet has already branded this album a bloated mess - and it is, let's make that clear - but it's the astounding and undeserved hubris behind Reflektor that really sank it for me.

Let me start with the instrumentation and this is going to be pretty tricky for me, because what I'm going to describe here is probably going to make you want to get this album, and I'd appreciate if you'd wait until I completely explain the problem. So here it is: this album sounds very much like a blend between early albums from The Cure, particularly in the guitar and bass melody lines, crossed with percussion in the vein of the Talking Heads, with the darker synths drawn straight from a early-80s Michael Jackson record. It's more than a little jarring to see Win Butler trying on his best Robert Smith impression, mostly because he gets the vocal affection uncannily right, but the emotions behind his delivery really don't work, and Regine Chassagne's vocal delivery is so reminiscent of a flighty girl group singer (even more than usual) that it's a little unnerving. And all of it is delivered with the straight-forward hyper-earnestness for which Arcade Fire is legendary.

And it's here we run into the first problems: the bloated instrumentation really doesn't gel well with this sort of instrumentation. The Cure's early works were punchy and were best in short bursts, so whenever Arcade Fire wheedles around and stretches their songs past four or five minutes, it sounds needlessly indulgent, particularly when they aren't using that extra time to do anything special or interesting. And the frustrating part is that so much of the instrumentation is incredibly insubstantial, without the thick meaty drums that added potent weight to The Suburbs. In fact, there seems to be a number of significant problems in the lower end of the mix altogether - the drumming is cursory and barely even there, and while the bass does have the rollicking quality reminiscent of the era, it's not quite strong enough to support the sounds Arcade Fire are creating on this record It doesn't help that the album is bookended by large tracts of meandering, fuzz-saturated avant-garde noise, which does an impressive job killing any momentum this album might carry at both beginning and end - lovely.

But to be completely fair, there are enough elements about this album that can work as good pop songs - hell, 'Joan Of Arc' is so goddamn catchy that I almost want to ignore the navel-gazing smugness of the song and how Regine's cooing is such a big step down from her impassioned delivery on The Suburbs (also, someone needs to tell artists a switch towards French only makes you look classy if you're trying to sound patronizing). The majority of this comes through in Win Butler's vocals - sure, he sounds sincere, but there's a sourness there that's definitely reflected in the instrumentation, particularly in some of the synths. It does lift slightly on the second half of the album, but it still left a distinctly bad taste in my mouth and I was starting to get confused as of why. I mean, Win Butler still sounds earnest enough, so why the hell isn't it working?

Well, here's where we're going to have to talk about the lyrics and thematic direction Arcade Fire is taking with this album - and I'll be blunt and say it's not a good one, because once again, we have a musical act obsessed with its own fame and success. As I've said before, it's very rare that this sort of thing can be compelling because you have to provide enough detail and deeper context to articulate this insecurity and not make it come across as whiny or petulant. Kanye West avoided this problem by embracing the mad arrogance cultivated his fame and then skewering everyone with it on Yeezus - but that sort of maneuver requires the balls to go for broke that Arcade Fire do not bring on this album. Instead, we get track after track of self-obsessed navel gazing that show for as much as Arcade Fire are concerned about fame, they're too in love with their own reflections to do anything about it. 

And what's worse is that the 'concern' surrounding fame and success sounds vapid, mostly because the instrumentation feels way too insubstantial to back up those emotions. Some of the persecution complex that was present on Neon Bible makes a return here - except without the greater weight belied by the symphonic undertones of that album, songs like 'We Exist' and 'Flashbulb Eyes' and especially 'Normal Person' feel obnoxious, with the earnest delivery by Win Butler completely flying in the face of the lyrical content, which would be barely tolerable under the best of circumstances. 

Of course, certain critics have been quick to point to Win Butler's series of influences, namely a old French film titled Black Orpheus, which is something of a retelling of the Greek myth. So, okay, as a critic who has a more literary background, I'll play along and entertain the idea that Win Butler is the Orpheus of the title and Eurydice is representative of... well, the rest of the album's context would suggest the audience responsible for Arcade Fire's fame. So let's go to the two songs that best articulate the myth, 'Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)' (the awful sound being silence) and 'It's Never Over (Oh Orpheus)'. It's a straightforward recreation of the myth (go wiki it, I'm not going to completely explain it) and while I'm not really a fan of either song, I can recognize the symbolic interpretation: when Arcade Fire tries to connect with the audience, he can't and the feeling of connection slips away. 

You know, that actually might make some sense, particularly considering Arcade Fire's reputation for being standoffish with their audience for their music, and it would fit the paranoia with regards to fame - but here's where it all breaks down. The myth of Orpheus' failed retrieval of Eurydice from the underworld is linked to Orpheus' 'love' (when in reality it's hubris and lack of trust), and when he looks back, she slips away. Tragic romance, solid symbolism, we're good here. However, if we're reinterpreting this relationship as Arcade Fire and its audience, the metaphor makes too much sense in the worst possible way. Like Orpheus, Arcade Fire cannot fully trust the audience or fame under a disguise of affection - and thus all throughout the album, we get little snippets of not just paranoia, but condescension towards that audience, which flies in the face of the populism they cultivated on The Suburbs! Songs like 'You Already Know' and 'Porno' and 'Normal Person' and 'Afterlife' have this air of faux-tortured smugness, how Win Butler agonizes over being 'normal'  and how he has such contempt for said values, and it either rings as completely disingenuous or obscenely arrogant with nothing to back it up (and trying to imitate Robert Smith even makes you sound more insufferable). And I get the feeling when he sings about fame or his audience, he's singing on the assumption we aren't listening or 'don't understand' his mental throughline - when in reality, it's not all that complicated to understand, particularly on this album. And combined with the insubstantial instrumentation and how much it feels cribbed from the late 70s without any real swell or heft, it comes across as navel-gazing and a critically acclaimed and famous artist talking into the mirror and saying 'Woe is me, for I am rich and successful and yet my audience of normals cannot understand my important message'... and the rest of us in the audience clear our throats awkwardly and say, 'Uh, you know we can hear you, right?' 

And yet, that level of self-awareness doesn't exist here, which ultimately culminates in my biggest problem with this album. It's clear that Arcade Fire thinks they're making some grand edifying statement about how an artist deals with fame and success, a reflective self-commentary - hell, it's no surprise they called in David Bowie as a cameo, given his work and his relationship with fame! But the real issue is that for all of the earnestness, the instrumentation still feels like a hodgepodge cribbed from the past without a solid foundation, the technical songwriting still isn't very strong, and there isn't the slightest bit of self-awareness or self-discovery made on this album. Instead, it's just gazing into a mirror and murmuring 'You're the only one that understands me' (that has to be the only explanation for album closer 'Supersymmetry', which seems most apt when discussing Arcade Fire's relationship with their own reflection), completely unaware what it looks like to us on the outside. They didn't reach any grand, edifying statement surrounding fame or critical success or even the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice - no, they just revealed to the audience their myopia and monstrous hubris, and their music isn't nearly unique or interesting enough on this album to back it up - the insubstantiality of the music makes all of the whinging come across as petulant, vapid and obnoxious. 

And I know somebody is going to make the argument that 'No, all of this is Arcade Fire's point, they're trying to make commentary on those who have a toxic relationship with fame' - yeah, I don't buy that. I've already given this album probably too much literary credit, and nowhere on this album is there that level of self-awareness, particularly considering how the title track establishes the arrogant self-obsession and whininess about fame early on and it doesn't let up. Or, let's put this another way: Nine Inch Nails did the exact same thing thematically with Hesitation Marks this year as Reflektor, an examination of past work and one's place with respect to their art and their audience, and with songs like 'Copy of A' (really, the song this record desperately needed), 'Disappointed', and 'Everything', Trent Reznor came to more striking, impacting and memorable conclusions surrounding his career, his fame and his artistic role than Arcade Fire ever wished they could!

In short, this is Arcade Fire's worst album by a mile. It's still not bad, per se - despite my issues with the content, the music is still mostly functional and there are a few highpoints, with 'Joan Of Arc' being my favourite by a mile. And hell, I don't object to the artistic shift - but it's a badly executed artistic shift, with a central album concept that only illuminates how much Arcade Fire is up their own ass and how much rancid contempt they have for everyone else. This isn't an exploration of the myth of Orpheus - much closer to that of Narcissus. And while I can appreciate when an album is going for big ideas, this record goes in the wrong direction. If you're a fan of Arcade Fire and you've drank the kool-aid, you probably already love this album and are planning to throw eggs at my landlord's house, but if you're not a fan, I advise you skip this album. It's a 5/10 from me, and really, it feels like I'm being generous considering how angry I got after listening to this.

And Arcade Fire, you might shout on songs that 'We exist' - that's nice, folks, but until you can come back with some modicum of self-awareness, I can live without that knowledge.

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