‘Reflektor’ influenced by art films and rara music

by Kyle McGoey | 10/30/13 7:00am

Most of the time, I find reviewing albums to be a fun, invigorating experience. I get to dive inside a record and engage with it, figure out what makes it tick. Every song gets run through on repeat while I try to capture my experience of the music and translate it into words, all in an attempt to convince you, the reader, to pick up the album and embark on a similar journey. In the nerdiest of ways, it’s absolutely exhilarating.

But this one really messed with my head. I have a ton of respect for Arcade Fire — their early albums were pivotal in my musical development, and their New Orleans show in 2011 still stands as one of my favorite concerts of all time. So I feel at least a little obligated to do them justice. But when you confront an album with the critical anticipation of “Reflektor,” the Montreal septet’s newest record, the stakes are frighteningly high. What if I don’t “get” it? Worse yet, what if I write a glowing review and find out tomorrow that everyone else, critics and fans alike, thinks it’s a pile of hot garbage? How can I be expected to enjoy the album, much less the whole review-writing process, when there’s this much pressure?

Luckily for me, “Reflektor” has been perfectly crafted to soothe my fears. It’s a great album — and I’ll get to what I love about it in a minute — but what’s most comforting to me is that it’s far from flawless. Between bandleader Win Butler’s cited influences — Brazilian art film “Orfeu Negro,” (1959) Kierkegaardian philosophy and Haitian rara music — and the fact that their debut was widely hailed as a generation-defining work within days of its release, it can be easy to see “Reflektor” as a monolithic, intimidating record. But every crack in the facade, from the abrasive skronk of “Flashbulb Eyes” to the comically mawkish lyrics of “Porno,” lets in a little more light and air. These flubs result from Arcade Fire trying just a little too hard to make life-changing, boundary-pushing music, which makes it that much easier to appreciate when their efforts succeed.

And boy, do they succeed. “Reflektor” finds Arcade Fire shedding the sweeping, string-accented anthems that have long been their trademark and moving toward a darker, knottier and more groove-focused sound. That they’ve mastered this completely new style on their first try speaks to their colossal talent and musical vision.

The influence of producer and former LCD Soundsystem leader James Murphy is all over “Reflektor,” but it’s especially obvious on the title track, which takes Murphy’s famous dance-punk rhythm and drugs it. The woozy, sinister groove keeps on building tension, constantly teasing a release that, when it finally comes, swarms your ears, as Butler wails, “Will I see you on the other side?” It’s a masterful track, proof that Murphy’s dancefloor smarts and Arcade Fire’s epic sweep combine to exceed the sum of their parts.

“Joan of Arc” steals a trick from Franz Ferdinand’s “Take Me Out,” teasing a snarling punk rave-up before dropping into a sexy glam-funk stomp. The bass guitar drives many of the tracks on “Reflektor,” and the bass line on “Joan of Arc” is one of the album’s most memorable. “Normal Person” reverses that path, squirming in its straightjacket before breaking out into a thundering chorus, countering the “proper English” that’s constrained Murphy with a hearty dose of fuzz-fried savagery. “You Already Know” takes the jaunty bounce of the Smiths and throws on a little Goth makeup, as Butler channels the Cure’s Robert Smith over a jangly guitar line.

“Here Comes the Night Time” bubbles under the surface, a groaning bass note clawing at the too-slow beat as stuttering guitar echoes close in from both sides. Things go from ominous to defiant as the Haitian people Butler sings about rebel against the colonists and missionaries and take joy in their own culture, a transition shown by one of Butler’s best lyrics, “When I hear the beat, my spirit’s on like a live wire / A thousand horses running wild in a city on fire.”

The second half of the album is anchored by the complementary pair of “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)” and “Afterlife,” which demonstrate the band’s newfound focus on rhythm. The former is a great shuddering stomp, anchored by a stuttering beat as unhinged dub bass stabs threaten to knock it off its foundation. The latter rides a starched-shirt groove, toeing the line between post-punk and disco. Angular guitars and breezy synths do battle for Butler’s soul as he ponders life after death and the death of a relationship. It’s hard to pick highlights on an album this good, but these two have “greatest hits” written all over them.

My friends always tell me that my reviews are too positive, that I give the thumbs up to so many records that it’s hard to tell which ones are actually worth their time. But if you don’t listen to me on anything else, at least trust me on this one: go get this album. It’ll rock your world.