People are already calling Arcade Fire’s new album “epic,” but it’s worth remembering that most folks will experience it in un-epic ways. For example: On Thursday, a few hours after the band posted Reflektor to YouTube, I listened to the Canadian rock act’s fourth album from portable speakers as I folded laundry.
It was an awesome time. Arcade Fire’s songs remain as grand as ever, delivering big crescendos, violins, and Win Butler’s weepy, spit-flinging vocals. So that made my laundry folding feel particularly important. But for Reflektor, the band and producer James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem played up the dance elements that have always been in Arcade Fire’s mix, building satisfying grooves that loop in songs often stretching past the six-minute mark. So the laundry folding may have come with some solitary shimmying about the house, too.
Remembering the humdrum context where music often gets consumed helps explain Arcade Fire's appeal. The fervor of their Pitchfork-reading fan base and the saviors-of-rock acclaim that rocketed them to an album-of-the-year Grammy can make it seem that the group is particularly brainy, weird, and deep—Radiohead successors, maybe. The band's own seriousness and closely managed public image can give the impression that they're beloved because they're Important and have Things to Say. But the truth is, this is not music you need to obsess over to appreciate. It's music to use—for long car rides, arena shows, and new-crush playlist making—and the band is at its best when it's at its most visceral.
In the past, Arcade Fire have sometimes seemed conflicted about that fact, prioritizing the artiste shtick over a good time. But happily, with heightened emphasis on rhythm and drama, Reflektor (officially out on Tuesday) provides more-immediate thrills than anything they've put out since their 2004 debut. Short, powerful punches like “Ready to Start” and “Keep the Car Running” don’t appear, but, miraculously, the long runtimes on most of the songs feel more generous than indulgent—there’s a lot of entertainment here.
That’s in part thanks to unapologetic influence-pilfering (Michael Jackson, Talking Heads, the folk music of Latin America and the Caribbean), decent-to-great hooks from Butler and Régine Chassagne, electrifying doses of punk-rock scuff, and, most importantly, well-executed shifts in sound and dynamics. One of the highlights, “Here Comes the Night Time,” opens with overdriven, Sonic-Youth-at-Carnival commotion, slows into a loping dancehall beat with a low end that groans like a fog horn, and then builds back up, maintaining infectious energy each time it changes shape.
The second half of the album ditches the dance stuff for a bit, but that fact allows Arcade Fire to show off another aspect of their usefulness: control of mood. The ballads “Here Comes the Night Time II” and “Supersymmetry” hold attention and even induce a few chills with their fine details and Butler’s pathos. Plus, they’re both too short to drag, so long as you skip the extended ambient outro on album closer “Supersymmetry.”
It’s only when you listen with the presumption that Arcade Fire are up to high-art brilliance that Reflektor starts to seem less awesome. Of course, the band members seem to hold this presumption themselves, and like their previous releases, Reflektor is a patchy concept record. The central idea is apparently based on Søren Kierkegaard’s notion of society moving between “reflective” periods and “passionate” periods—as Butler makes it sound, essentially between pervasive negativity and positivity.
Sometimes Reflektor’s treatment of the topic works. On the ever-busier title track, Butler (assisted for a single refrain by David Bowie) compellingly observes that technology meant to connect people often instead creates closed feedback loops. Later, the sneering garage rock of “Normal Person” initially seems to forward a lazy notion of counterculture; Butler’s “Is anything as strange as a normal person?” feels pretty close to Korn’s Jonathan Davis's “You laugh at me because I’m different; I laugh at you because you’re all the same.” But in the bridge, he smartly undercuts his own us-vs.-them stance: “I’ve never really ever met a normal person.”
Elsewhere, Butler’s stabs at profundity feel muddled and distracting. “Here Comes the Night Time” fetishizes a tropical, non-wired culture (according to interviews, it’s Haiti, Chassagne’s parents' country of origin). In it, Butler disses colonizing missionaries, but he's more likely to receive flack for passingly implying people in poverty to be intrinsically more joyful, authentic, and spiritual. And throughout the album’s first half, he shows a surprising lack of empathy as he carps about the challenges of being a successful musician. “We Exist” seems to draw a parallel between celebrities thinking of fans as less than human and fans doing the same to celebrities—but devotes way more time to sympathizing with the celebs.
The reason for that imbalance, though, is the love story at Reflektor's heart. The album's really about two performers finding each other and trying to stick together, “reflective age” cynicism be damned (Butler and Chassagne were bandmates before they were spouses). The best tracks here don’t obscure the relationship stuff with meditations on fame or the Internet or the Third World. Instead, Butler deals out romance-related slogans as universal and grandiose as the music. “Afterlife” neatly equates death and breakup, with a chorus that’ll prove handy for quarreling lovers everywhere: “Let's scream and shout 'till we work it out.” Earlier, "You Already Know" offers a solid, small insight about watching a relationship deteriorate: "When your love is right, you can't sleep at night / You've been sleeping just fine."
The messaging and the music comes together best late in the album, on the emo-disco stunner “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus).” Butler and Chassagne reenact a Greek myth in the verses, but the song ranks among Arcade Fire's best for its big, majestic guitar hook, springy beat, weary but catchy chorus, and, most of all, its devastating, hushed refrain:
It seems so important now
But you will get over
And when you get over
When you get older
Then you will remember
Why it was so important then
Sentimental, yes, but also incisive, true, and referencing just about anything you want. Post it as a Facebook status, stitch it on a t-shirt, and then fold that t-shirt to the sound of a band that's never been better at making music to live with.