This wasn’t supposed to be the script for Arcade Fire. Indie success stories might score an unlikely hit single or win critical love for one of their albums. But winning Grammy Album of the Year, as they did with 2010’s The Suburbs, just doesn’t happen to bands like them. Then again, most don’t usually release such a complete, compelling artistic statement as The Suburbs with just their third LP, so there’s not a lot of precedent there either.
You might think such a high point would be an inadvertent obstacle, creating a “Where do we go from here?” type of situation. Instead, based on the evidence of their follow-up album Reflektor, that early career peak just might be the best thing that ever happened to them. Perhaps fearing the diminishing returns that a Suburbs II type of approach would have engendered, Arcade Fire has made a substantial departure from that instant classic and come up with something that’s a bit more unwieldy but takes several huge steps forward in terms of musical innovation. In other words, this is the band’s first headphone album.
Whereas The Suburbs mostly reached back to musical influences like Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen in accord with the bittersweet nostalgia of the subject matter, Reflektor strands you somewhere in the not-too-distant future and dares you to adjust. Even when you can spot the forbears, like the disco-pop of the title track, the reggae of “Flashbulb Eyes,” or the Motown grooves of “You Already Know,” there’s always something on the edges that blurs the obvious through-lines to the musical past. Credit LCD Soundsystem maestro James Murphy, who shares production duties with longtime Arcade Fire collaborator Markus Dravs, for loosening the band up even when the lyrical stakes remain high.
Frontman Win Butler has also adopted a more direct approach to his lyrics this time around. If The Suburbs was about the way that the influence of the past never really wanes, Reflektor lives up to its title by unflinchingly holding a mirror up to the modern world with all its crossed wires and frayed connections. That’s true even when Butler and wife Regine Chassagne are doing their own take on the ancient myth of Orpheus and Eurydice on the second disc of this sprawling set of mostly long songs.
Yet even though the rhythms might be edgier and there is a bit more noise and clatter, the core of Butler’s message hasn’t changed all that much from fist-pumping classics like “No Cars Go” or “Wake Up.” He still favors different varieties of the same scenario: The collective “we” against an unnamed “they,” a set-up which allows listeners to substitute their own specific antagonists for the loosely-defined ones Butler provides. It’s a tactic well-honed by both populist writers like Springsteen and John Lennon and art-rockers like Roger Waters and Thom Yorke, and Butler time and again proves worthy of following in that hallowed line.
Chassagne is also an essential part of the equation, her sighing harmonies providing mystery and sensuality at every turn. The countermelodies the she and Butler sing on “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)” are unabashedly beautiful. And that’s the thing about Reflektor: Even with all of its headiness and, let’s face it, indulgence (like the five minutes or so or wordless spaceship sounds tacked on to closing track “Supersymmetry”), it’s still filled with those signature breathtaking moments.
In that respect, maybe the closest comparison for Reflektor would be U2’s Achtung Baby, an album which saw Bono and the boys dirty things up a bit and still provide their signature cathartic rock even when it was well-disguised. “Here Comes The Night Time” might feature lilting island rhythms, but Butler’s eloquent desperation is what shines through. And the icy synths, electro-beat, and title of “Porno” might not suggest it, but the song turns out to be a moving testament to staying loyal to a relationship even if it’s in utter turmoil.
Fans craving some kind of thematic hook might be disappointed, but the flow the band achieves from song to song even with the variety of sounds on display should outweigh those concerns. Basically, Arcade Fire have gone and painted themselves into another corner with Reflektor. They’ve recorded another stunning album that’s going to be a bear to follow up.