Reflektor: Kitchen sink included for Arcade Fire

arcade-fireTHE DEATH-DISCO backbeat and Davie Bowie cameo of Reflektor’s opening title track sets the darkly neurotic tone for the rest of an appropriately reflective album, one that sees Arcade Fire setting their mirrorball sights on themselves, the trappings of millionaire stardom and, as ever, world domination. You can never accuse them of downplaying their music; certainly, their aesthetic of total maximalism soars above the hectic mirror sheen of Reflektor. There seems to be an everything-and-the-kitchen sink sensibility employed throughout; one that might, to the more cynical among us, suggest a self-indulgence unmatched since the days of 70s rock n’ roll gigantism as peddled by the Gospel of Zeppelin and Floyd.

And they wouldn’t be far off either: only four of the thirteen tracks on the album fail to breach the five minute mark. Violinist Sarah Neufeld’s departure might have lead us to believe Reflektor represents a reining-in of the excesses that marred The Suburbs. Au contraire, mon chere. Not since those heady days of dinosaur pomp has there been such a flagrantly self-aggrandising double-album, monolithic and sprawling in its scope and ambition.

Though many double-albums (see: The Wall, Quadrophenia) aim for the mind, Arcade Fire makes no secret of the fact their aim is squared at the dancefloor; Reflektor’s an album driven by beats and grooves, electronic or otherwise. The rhythm section, on previous releases fairly downplayed, comes crunching to the fore of the action on tracks like ‘We Exist’, propelled by a rolling, slinking bassline and Win Butler’s desperate hiss that, yes, “we exist.” We know, Win. You’ve made quite a fuss about it recently.

‘Flashbulb Eyes’ is a deliciously invigorating, Caribbean-Eno inflected delight, infused with a strange perpetual motion all its own. It makes you want to do an awkward shuffle, it’s great. ‘Here Comes the Night Time’ rides on reggae percussion and steel-pan hits, distorted washes of synth and guitar brushing up against your ears; then there’s the sudden, exhilarating gear-shift up into what sounds like a dub merry-go-round before collapsing back.

If this sounds exciting, it is. Less thrilling is ‘Normal Person’, which sees Butler moaning about the rock star life, asking “do you like rock music? / I’m not sure I do.” It wasn’t especially incisive when Roger Waters did it with ‘Money’ and it doesn’t sound any more endearing 40 years later. It, like the entirely disposable ‘Here Comes the Night Time II’, sounds like a B-side from Neon Bible; there’s nothing especially clever here, sonically or lyrically.

Throughout the album, the influence of former-LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy is brought to bear; from the producer’s chair he hurls in tempests of sounds (shouts, electric drones, voices) that swirl around but never intrude upon the main attraction. ‘You Already Know’ opens and closes with the voice of Jonathan Ross, funnily enough, before bursting into staccato chord stabs, glittery arpeggios and walking bass that bob and sway beneath waves of shimmering, exploding sound. Régine Chassagne inhabits each song with her airy graces, her harmonies precise and well-implemented in lieu of her singing lead; she acts, appropriately enough, as a perfect mirror to Butler’s darker groan.

The second disc is, unfortunately, where it all goes a bit pear-shaped. It starts off poorly with ‘Here Comes the Night Time II’ before lilting into the unabashedly beautiful ‘Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)’, its mournful strings and bending guitar notes rebuffing Butler’s concerns of “the reflective age”, sounding closer to belonging on Funeral than anything else. Its thematic, more upbeat twin ‘It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)’ seems rather more like vapour; fine but insubstantial, its coda dragging for about two minutes too long.

‘Porno’ is similar, its repetitive synth lines eventually beginning to break the listener’s patience. It’s around this point that you begin to feel the album’s exorbitant length: they couldn’t cut any of this? ‘Afterlife’ is the same, seeming to go on forever without saying anything interesting or doing anything… at all. “It’s just an afterlife,” apparently: six minutes of it.

Nowhere is their unwillingness to end the bloody song more present than the closing ‘Supersymmetry’. Around three minutes in the vocals cut out and the track, spurred by loping synthlines and sustained drones, begins to build, and build, and build, climbing toward an epic, soaring climax in the manner of, say, ‘Wake Up’; you wait for the release with bated breath, fists clenched, teeth gritted from the tension, waiting to exhale… and it never comes. What comes instead is five straight minutes of analogue tape rewind that comes off as an insipid parody of ‘Revolution 9’. Are they taking the piss?

There’s always a hubristic danger associated with the concept of the double-album, one that suggests a sneaking narcissism in a band that have previously managed to sidestep such concerns. Reflektor, more than any of their other albums, sounds like a statement, self-consciously so. “Entre la nuit, la nuit et l’aurore (between the night, the night and the dawn),” Chassagne purrs on the title track. Between the scissors and the cutting room floor might be more appropriate. Trim the fat (i.e. the second disc bar ‘Awful Sound’) and you’d have a wonderful and compelling album-of-the-year contender. As Reflektor stands, however, it’s merely good, thwarted in its vaulted ambition by its own 85-minute bulk.