Living with Black Orpheus

Arcade Fire didn’t really used to sound like any other band. But 2010’s The Suburbs set them off on a journey of mainstreaming which Reflektor, their fourth album, refashions into a sprawling quest to pay homage to their influences whilst hinting at bigger truths. Like The Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin before it, Reflektor is a concept-album about not having a concept.

The sound is bigger than them
“Sometimes I think that I’m bigger than the sound,” sang Karen O on the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Cheated Hearts”, a moment of quiet reflection in the œuvre of a band which, at times, is more associated with the movement than the music. No such preoccupation concerns Arcade Fire on Reflektor. Unfolding the beautiful gatefold object, glistening and sparkling like an oil slick, reveals two slabs of shellac—the twin symbols of a capital-E event. By way of introduction to the second disc, the listener hears the electronic sweep of frequencies last exhibited on XDR cassettes in the 1980s—an unmistakeable sign that the sound is bigger than them.

This is an album intended to be fawned over, pored over, lived in. The production, handled in the main by James Murphy of the DFA, unfurls and expands into a universe of pulsating synths, pattering percussion and chicken-scratch guitar. The songs keep running like Duracell bunnies, their tightly-wound coils never really unravelling. Isolated riffs and sounds and textures nod to systemically important forebears. It seems plausible at any moment that the work could collapse under the weight of its own significance.

The sound of someone losing the plot…
Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs was a lengthy but musically streamlined album with a blindingly obvious title and narrative summed up by the lyric “First they built the road, then they built the town”. Church organs and string arrangements were mostly eschewed in favour of Springsteenian arena-sized guitars and a few sultry disco beats. (Think Blondie rather than Moroder, though.) The album brought the band astronomic audiences stretching far into the bleachers, and respite from critics who thought them too odd. In hindsight, a few persistent highlights aside (“Sprawl II”, “We Used To Wait”), it sounds a little bland, a bit rote. But it defined a nation of baby-boom tail-enders, weaned on strip malls and cable television. (Some might argue Isaac Brock covered much the same ground on Modest Mouse’s The Lonesome Crowded West.)

A lifetime ago, the angular Britpop band Pulp followed their own nation-defining magnum opus Different People with the tormented, deranged and sexually savage This Is Hardcore. On the title-track, Jarvis Cocker depicted a tale of a sleazy couple shooting a porno; on the opener, he detailed the cocaine-fuelled head(line)-case fame had made him become.

It was tempting to suspect Reflektor would be just as much the sound of someone losing the plot. Within its forbidding running time, there are moments of levity and airy grace (“You Already Know”, “Flashbulb Eyes”), of spaceship-coupé rock ‘n’ roll (“Normal Person”, “Joan Of Arc”), and of relentlessly progressive artistry (“We Exist”, “Here Comes The Night Time”, the monolithic title-track). Incredibly, all these examples just make up the album’s first disc.

The splitting of material between two will always invite raised eyebrows, all the more so if they are ruptured by an oppressively ambient interlude.

But the quality of the second, more capacious half vindicates the band’s ballsy move. Songs ride along lithe, clattering rhythms, pausing only to explode briefly into moments of naïve splendour, as on the Queen-aping stacked harmonies which punctuate “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)”. The Haitian undergrowth, its scurrying inhabitants masked and painted, leads to a fragment of a dream of stadium-sized art rock. A track later, a spindly and icy groove is suddenly ripped into by a pummelling riff, which in turn cedes to a passage of astral synth-pop and a rare moment of prominence for Régine Chassagne, who is otherwise relegated to a peripheral role on the album. Elsewhere, there are intimations of funk and disco that sound tailor-made for Minimal Mambo, “the subtlest possible hints of fingers snapping under right-angled elbows”. In its disparate aesthetic qualities, as in its lyrical themes, the album strives for the universal.

…and finding an even better one
It strikes me that virtually all double-albums are flawed, but only some are flawed masterpieces. The Wall: too dislikable. Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming: too misty-eyed, in places. Perhaps my favourite is Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ Abattoir Blues/The Lyre Of Orpheus, on which there is a keen division of art, between swampy Southern gothic and pastoral simplicity, that means the physical schism is well-earned. Reflektor shares much with that album: a protagonist, the absence of a narrative, a palpable tonal shift. Orpheus is a fleeting presence but his story hovers sagely over the entire work: Reflektor dares to venture into Hades to retrieve what it fears the world has lost—music as art as entertainment—and winds up… coming early, so to speak. The quantum-tangled “Supersymmetry” fizzles out into an infinity of nothingness. A burbling, nonsense-babbling brook of tape loops and sound effects spins out to forever more. And Arcade Fire wrap up their love-letter to the greats with the sonic equivalent of a Chris Morris joke.

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