Pop music history is filled with streamlined narratives, and in order to fathom what will happen once Arcade Fire’s “Reflektor” is seen in the rear view, look no further than its closest artistic precedent, U2′s “Achtung Baby.” Now 22 years old, that album is considered a watershed moment for U2, but upon its release in November 1991, not everyone was on board for the band’s burned down and rebuilt sensibility. There were negative reviews and pronouncements of artistic overreach.
“Reflektor” might not be the equal of “Achtung Baby” — if it’s not, it’s within kissing distance — but it belongs in the same genus. It’s the sound of a band undertaking a grand redesign and making a calculation that takes into account the probable sloughing off of fans while maintaining confidence that it will gather multitudes of new ones.
The rhythmic surety and conceptual confidence at the core of “Reflektor” gets a loud declaration on the nearly 8-minute title track. Beginning with a depth-charge bass note and a disco beat informed by producer James Murphy’s intimate understanding of what will get both feet and brains in motion, “Reflektor” sets a tone of mourning for the false intimacy of social media and the house-of-mirrors reality of modern communication, complete with a David Bowie cameo.
For leader Win Butler, everything is open to question. As Arcade Fire slides into an “Exile on Main Street” gear on “Normal Person,” he asks “Do you like rock ‘n’ roll music? Because I don’t know if I do.” With everyone stuck in their specific, custom-made frames of reference, it’s hard to define “normal,” much less rock ‘n’ roll.
Fortunately, Butler and Arcade Fire offer plenty of possible answers for the rock ‘n’ roll question and almost no examples of normality, firing up massive rhythmic shifts on the tropical beauty of “Here Comes the Night Time” and transitioning from hard-core punk to Gary Glitter-style glam stomp on “Joan of Arc.” Thanks to Murphy bringing all the dance acumen he accrued in LCD Soundsystem, Arcade Fire summons bittersweet memories of New Order on “Afterlife” but still sounds magnificently like Arcade Fire.
Ironically, Butler’s thesis for “Reflektor,” which is that we’re all in our own little boxes and barely communicating, means that “Reflektor” might never achieve the cultural import or transcendence of “Achtung Baby.” Its ambition is just too massive for a 140-character world to digest.
— George Lang