Album of the year : Reflektor - Arcade Fire

Arcade Fire certainly find themselves at a crossroads with their fourth album, Reflektor. The last time the Montreal-based group made a record, The Suburbs, it did so as an acclaimed indie band - not a Grammy album of the year-winning act on the verge of becoming a household name

Reflektor accepts the challenge that comes with millions of ears, eyes and lenses aimed at it but does so by taking listeners on a journey unlike any they’ve taken before. Its most confident and experimental yet, Reflektor features songs steeped in punk, dance rock, disco, reggae and noise, and themes ranging from love in the Digital Age to faith amid profound tragedy

Perhaps the album can be best described using a line from one of its most striking songs, ‘Here Comes the Night Time’: “A thousand horses running wild in a city on fire.” Big, brash, percussive and bass heavy, the band gallops through its fourth album, taking only occasional breaks to cool off

Produced by the band along with James Murphy (LCD Soundsystem, DFA) and longtime collaborator Markus Dravs, Reflektor recalls the Rolling Stones’ Some Girls, Talking Heads’ Remain in Light, Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique and Radiohead’s Kid A - records from established artists intent on packing more percussion and influences into an already big sound. Attention firmly grabbed, these albums suggest, let’s hit the dance floor and shake it

Inspiration for the album came from a trip lead vocalist and songwriter Win Butler and his wife Régine Chassagne made to her native home of Haiti, where Butler discovered, among many things, rara music. A later trip to Jamaica with Dravs brought the band from Louisiana’s Dockside Studio to the island’s rural Trident Castle, where they bunked together for a month to embrace the surrounding culture and rhythms. What came to fruition is a record that creates a sound that’s as personal as the soil at the bottom of their weathered boots

And there’s plenty of soil to sift through. Almost immediately, ‘Reflektor’ offers a one-way ticket to the islands with a fat rhythm section, sweating from Haitian percussionists Willinson Duprate and Verrieux Zile alongside regular collaborators Colin Stetson and Owen Pallett. Butler and Chassagne quip the song’s haunting chorus against mentor-turned-guest-vocalist David Bowie, making it feel like a sequel to Fame in the same way Sean Connery’s Never Say Never Again echoes Thunderball. From there, they wiggle through cocaine glam funk (‘We Exist’), interstellar reggae (‘Flashbulb Eyes’), and Haitian rara gothic (‘Here Comes the Night Time). Butler’s words are just as ornamental; foreign poetry from a distinctive scholar. “And the missionaries, they tell us we will be left behind,” he intones on ‘Here Comes the Night Time’. “Been left behind a thousand times, a thousand times.” This isn’t a personal prayer, but a snapshot commentary on the relationship between the Haitians and Christianity’s probing influence as experienced by Butler himself. In relation to the album, it’s an influential piece to a complicated puzzle that involves themes of life, death, communication, and isolation

“Do you like rock ‘n’ roll music, ’cause I don’t know if I do,” Butler scats in one of the album’s faux on-stage vignettes. Of course, he follows this up with ‘Normal Person’, the sloppiest swamp rocker north of the bayou, tipping over with a guitar riff that any high school student could whip up in an hour’s time in their garage - that’s what makes it so brilliant, so human, and so aggressive. Shortly after, those guitars keep warm with ‘You Already Know’ and ‘Joan of Arc’; the former an ’80s college rocker via The Replacements and the latter a schizophrenic post-punk jamboree off meds

As if to heed Butler’s reservations, the band tones down the rock for a retooling of new wave in the album’s second half, prioritizing synths over guitars. There’s the sexy strut of ‘Porno’ and the sing-a-long ‘Afterlife’ bookended by a conceptual recap (‘Here Comes The Night Time II’); the highlight track  (‘Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)’); drummer Jeremy Gara’s future least favourite song (‘It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)’); and an 11-minute lullaby for aliens (‘Supersymmetry’)

The second disc is Arcade Fire’s musical descent into the underworld, an examination of higher love amid the temptations and distractions that separate us from our better selves, with Butler as Orpheus, Chassagne as his Eurydician vocal shadow and their malleable band concocting audacious sonic vistas of heaven and hell

Reflektor is exhaustingly, daringly, bafflingly brilliant, but you might want to lie down in a dark room after listening!

Buy it here

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