Faces in Reflection: The Arcade Fire’s “Reflektor”

B. Michael Payne stole Win Butler’s basketball. At some point – perhaps after he realized they both raised money for a hurricane-ravaged land, or maybe it was the recognition of a fellow...
By    October 30, 2013

ARCADE-FIRE-REFLEKTOR2B. Michael Payne stole Win Butler’s basketball.

At some point – perhaps after he realized they both raised money for a hurricane-ravaged land, or maybe it was the recognition of a fellow Capital-A Artist’s inner glow of – whatever it was, at some point Win Butler seems to fall under the impression that he was Kanye West.

The similarities abound.

Both artists (roughly equivocating “Win Butler” with “Arcade Fire”) came on the scene with an early 00s debut that perfectly captured and advanced their genre’s sound. The direction of their work marked their transformation from from earnest, over-achieving artists to extremely earnest, chest-pounding Artists. They make the papers as much for how they look as for how they sound. Their latest albums from this year just cement the comparison.

Time was, Arcade Fire could single-handedly save a beloved indie record label by selling almost 100,000 units in a week and winning a Grammy. Maybe Arcade Fire could even ‘save’ indie rock, in general. Now, Arcade Fire is major; they’re firmly entrenched on Universal Music Group, taking full advantage of the business deal. They’ve partnered up with Google and, to be fair, made quite a few charity efforts. But what says baller status more than donating $1 million of your own money to a cause of your choice?

Arcade Fire’s Reflektor is their most Kanye move yet, which is to say, their most heavy-handed artistic endeavor to date.

There was the massive rollout, recalling and Kanye’s approach to Yeezus. It involved strategically placed graffiti-like art being placed a month ago in New York, Sydney, and London. There were multiple appearances on NBC, and a pair of tiny, ‘secret’ shows in Brooklyn during CMJ, for which StubHub prices rose to $250. Oh, and then there’s the music itself. Like Yeezus, Reflektor is one of the year’s most interesting albums and problematic albums.

There may be fewer names in its credits, but they’re just as luminous. James Murphy produced almost all of the album. Colin Stetson and Owen Pallet provide arrangements. Kid Koala does something in the first track. David Bowie shows up for a bit.

When Arcade Fire isn’t borrowing other people, they’re straight pillaging other peoples’ sounds. There’s a punk rock song. A dub song. A rara-calypso number. A song that sounds like Morrissey. Several songs that sound like Talking Heads A-sides. Musically, it’s hard to tell where influence ends and Arcade Fire begins. The strongest continuity between Reflektor and its predecessors has much less to do with how the album sounds and much more with the feelings and concepts behind it.

Regardless of how big the songs sound (massive, at times) their reach is bigger. The very first song, “Reflektor”, lays out the themes of the album: “I thought I found the connector”; “I thought I found a way to enter”; “thought you were praying to the resurrector”. The song – and the entire album – teases out how relationships between people deteriorate and what people can do to square themselves with that, whether through religious transcendence, moral action, or a personal recalibration. This first song criticizes the technology that alienates us – screens, signals, silver disks – and posits that we’re interacting with a merely phenomenal world rather than a numinous one. It does all this over a swaggering disco beat, which is ridiculous.

Reflektor is organized across two discs. The first disc is probably meant to cover a period of daytime to sunset and the second from nighttime to daybreak. The symbolism is obvious: resurrection, recurrence, redemption, even.

The first half has the more literal songs. There’s “We Exist”, which reads, maybe, like LGBTQ anthem:

Daddy it’s true, I’m different from you,

but tell me why they treat me like this.

If you turned away, what would I say?

Not the first betrayed by a kiss.

Look at that Christ-allusion slipped in with the subtlety of a Range Rover crunching a Corolla.

The next few songs deal with, to put it mildly, colonial issues. Part of the album was recorded in Jamaica, and it should be mentioned that Régine Chassagne is of Haitian descent, which is why the band persistently raises money and awareness for the country. But starting with “Flashbulb Eyes”, Reflektor takes a turn toward wackness.

“Flashbulb Eyes” – a somewhat convincing dub song (hear that slappy, spring reverb?) finds Win Butler vocalizing a step away from a fake patois.

What if the camera really do take your soul?

The next song, “Here Comes The Night Time” puts the narrator among the colonized:

And the missionaries, they tell us we will be left behind.

Been left behind a thousand times, a thousand times.

The song tells us that it’s in music – “When I hear the beat, the spirit’s on me like a live wire” – that a person (or a people?) can find salvation. The song is, let’s be clear, a powerhouse. It starts with a surf-rock gallop and settles into a delicious rara-esque groove. Or is it more an indie rocker’s idea of how to make a rara?

The last song on disc one, “Joan of Arc”, is probably the most vexing. The band starts out sounding like X before settling (like HAIM’s “The Wire” and Kanye’s “Black Skinhead”) into a Gary Glitter “Rock and Roll” stomp. Musically, it’s rousing. Lyrically, it’s the sound of every Nice Guy (TM) ever’s tears put on tape:

When the voices came you cut your hair,

but you’re still confused.

But I’m the one with the heavy heart,

‘cause I follow you.

Those are some of the words Win Butler sings in the song. The song is all “I’ll follow you” and “I really wanna know you.” It’s embarassing. The situation is made even more weird and confused when Régine sings in French (according to Google Translate),

You say that you are my judge, but I do not believe you.

So you’re saying I’m a saint, but it’s not me.

I hear voices, but not me. I’m not Joan of Arc.

She could be rebuffing the “boys” in the song (the same “boys” whom Win fears because of their porno addiction?), but it could easily serve as a rejoinder to Butler’s Nice Guy syndrome.

Now, all of this self-identifying as a colonial body and trying to save a woman who doesn’t want to be saved – all of this is on the face pretty unsavory, but it’s also baked into the Arcade Fire ethos. Butler’s always been a pretty clunky songwriter. (Recall this howler from Neon Bible: “Hear the soldier groan, ‘We’ll go at it alone.’”) But their songwriting would be significantly hampered if the band didn’t try to tap into these thorny veins of discourse.

It’s clear they’re interested in the way societies organize themselves, oriented along racial, gender, class, and spiritual lines. Since Arcade Fire obviously reach for a greater signifance than being merely a rock band, they have to inhabit universals. The problem with the writing on the album is that it compresses the concepts of colonialism, spiritualism, and social justice – universals – into the individual experience of (here, at least) Win Butler. (The first person pronoun “I” occurs some 50 times.) The result is that disc one channels the experience of colonized bodies through a Texas-born, Philips Exeter Academy-educated white guy. That’s pretty wack.

(If you don’t believe me, there’s an entire cringe-worthy Rolling Stone interview with Butler where he compares himself to Bob Marley and says things like, “I feel like I’m kind of a bit of a sponge in a way” when asked about the mishmash of influences in the album.)

The second disc also strives for the universal, but it does so through a bunch of dead gods, which society tends to find OK. This ‘resurrection/redemption’ side centers on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. The myth is retold in the film Orfeu Negro, which has made up a big part of the promotion of Reflektor. In a nutshell: Orpheus is a famously great singer; his lovely wife is killed, and his song convinces the gods of the underworld to let her go. At the last moment, he looks back to make sure she’s following him out at which point she’s lost forever.

From all this, Arcade Fire find a lot of symbolic grist, including the emotional-musical peak of the album, “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus).” Perhaps betraying a certain brand of savior complex, the song tries to console Orpheus by saying (wait for it), “It’s never over.” The song rumbles along impressively, though, with a very DFA bassline and a sleek propulsion that belies its nearly seven minute run-time.

That is, more or less, the story of the entire album. You wouldn’t be crazy to suggest the album be trimmed a bit. (That would lose the symbolic two halves thing, though.) All the five+ minute songs (over half the album!) could have a few minutes cut off without anyone noticing. That most of Reflektor is ostensibly up-tempo dance music helps to keep things feeling brisk, but there’s definitely a lot here.

Reflektor is a large album built upon large themes. The music is constructed like a cathedral, or a city burning with life. Instead of walls, the album is made up of emotions and textures. It can be maddening when you try to trace out the literal meaning or unpack some unpleasant cultural analysis. But, the songwriting palette that Butler (et al) paints with uses spirit and society almost interchangeably, and this admixture finds its way into the music at every step. The recurrent themes of darkness, love, and rescue abstract the specific points the lyrics make at any one point. In this way, Butler is a lot like a preacher who tries to excoriate global inequality at one turn and shelter children from pornography at the next. A step-by-step reading at home can make it seem ridiculous, but the feeling inside church can’t be matched.

That, finally, is the last resemblance between Reflektor and Yeezus. Both albums are difficult and ugly at times, with politics that don’t quite add up by any math. It’s also just as captivating. The most annoying thing about Arcade Fire is that they have the musical chops to make some of the best music around, but their ideas and politics lag. Right now, it feels difficult to take seriously a AAA album that’s not political in some way because these are, let’s be real, very fucked up times. Any great Art made by a great Artist will incorporate the time. But Art is also supposed to be timeless. But both artists – Kanye and Arcade Fire – work better on the level of mythology than politics. Kanye is the Hermes of verses, and Win is the always doomed Orpheus.

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