The last time I wrote about Arcade Fire, it was Feburary of 2011—Valentine’s Day. And I didn’t know it at the time, but my life was about to change.
The piece I wrote tried to put into words how perfectly Arcade Fire’s third album, The Suburbs, captured the tone of me and Danielle’s, my fiancée/wife, life at the time. We’d left the Bronx together, lived in the suburbs together during college, and then, after a short stint back in the Bronx, got an apartment in staff housing on the same college campus. During the August after the release of The Suburbs, two months before our wedding, we sat and stared out at the green expanse of the quad in our fold-up chairs and listened to amazing songs that seemed to explore the quiet dynamics of what surrounded us. When we moved into our first home in the woods of Connecticut that May, the life change I wasn’t aware was coming back in February (along with a baby almost two years later), The Suburbs was one of the main CD’s that we played on repeat as we painted and gardened and adjusted. It was a familiar link to our past that, at the same time, helped us to transition into our even more suburb-y present.
I came to Arcade Fire late, during the run-up to the release of The Suburbs. The first time I’d heard their music was a video of their 2007 SNL performance of the Neon Bible track ‘Intervention.’ The organ intrigued me; the sad, combative lyrics that took on religion intrigued me; and, let’s be real, a stage packed with—let’s call them interesting-looking people—was intriguing as well. As each viewing of the video began again with Rainn Wilson’s monotone, “Ladies and Gentlemen—Arcade Fire,” I began to realize that I was hooked.
I’d heard the band’s name before, had chuckled about stage-roaming drummers and hyperactive xylophone players that wore crash helmets. As I drove in an SUV to my bachelor party (at the time, I was obsessed with the band’s second album, Neon Bible, having already worked through the grand elation of Funeral), when I was passed the car iPod, I did the only thing I thought was proper to set the tone for a day and night dedicated to celebrating my upcoming nuptials—I made everyone bask in the glory of exploring death and religion in a way that is equal parts despondent and elating.
News about Reflektor, Arcade Fire’s latest album, started with reports about specific dates and times (9/9 at 9pm) and chalk drawings and some group that sure looked like Arcade Fire who called themselves “The Reflektors” playing a gig at a salsa club in Montreal. And then the track ‘Reflektor' was released and then the two videos for the song were unveiled, and then the warm-up shows (the first of which, on 10/18/13, took place in a warehouse in Brooklyn. “The Reflektors” tricked an audience, that included me and my wife, into standing at the wrong stage) began and recently, as of Tuesday, November 19th, the pre-sale of the tickets for the world tour began.
Reflektor's symbolism revolves around duplicates and individual components and things missing—shards of mirror, reflections of light, boxed-off segments that fit a larger whole, reverberations, disco balls, and echo boxes that send the singer’s words hurtling towards the great beyond before pulling them back again, muddy and distorted—a moody, flashy party. It brings to mind a passage from the tremendous Charles D’Ambrosio story ‘The Point,’ when the main character, a thirteen year-old boy dealing with his father’s suicide, has just launched himself off of a swing-in-motion, at the height of the arc, in the middle of a night spent dealing with a middle-age drunken woman in their beach community:
Things toppled and blew in the wind. A striped beach umbrella rolled across the playfield, twirling like a pinwheel. A sheet from someone’s clothesline flapped loose and sailed away. I thought of my nightmare, of Father’s balloon tied to a string bean. I looked up at the sky, and it was black, with some light. There were stars, millions of them like tiny holes in something, and the moon, like a bigger hole in the same thing. White holes.
That idea—an absence inside of something large rather than the addition of something, relative to the whole, that is small—seems to me to be what Reflektor is all about. And in a way, that has always been what Arcade Fire’s music is about. It’s just that before, it wasn’t quite as stripped down; there was a sonic wave (an ocean of noise, if you will) behind it that filled in the blanks for us.
But Reflektor, at least for some, seems to have gone too far.
Does music (or art in general) owe it to the listener to explain everything up front? Is outside research necessary? Should it matter if part of your enjoyment depends on knowing something that isn’t explicitly supplied? There have been reviews of Reflektor that hail it as a triumph and others that mock its mere existence. It appears to be destined to become one of those albums that, cliché be damned, you either get or you don’t, which I suppose shouldn’t come as a surprise. While this has been reported as a new occurrence, I would posit that that has always been the case with Arcade Fire. It’s just that, post-Grammy win, more people are now required to care.
In 2013, Opinion and Criticism have become conflated. You’re either part of Camp That Shouts, “Genius!” or part of Camp That Shouts Bullshit! And of course, both camps are part of Camp That Desires To Shout First!
Because of this, the course that our response to cultural objects takes now is depressingly predictable—there’s the hyperbolic praise; and then the comic backlash, a pendulum that is required to swing just as far in the opposite direction; and then, finally, the backlash to that backlash, in which a small band in the middle looks to compensate for both extreme fluctuations.
Is Win Butler’s voice muddy in the mix at points on Reflektor? Yes. Has that always been the case with Arcade Fire’s music? I think so. Is there a misappropriation of Haitian culture taking place in Reflektor’s sound and promotion? I can’t tell. It doesn’t feel exploitative, though.; it feels loving. And honest. I also can’t speak to where Reflektor sits in terms the other three Arcade Fire albums. Is it the best? The worst? Better question—does it matter?
What cannot be denied is that there is a purposeful range of sound embraced on Reflektor—the neo-disco of the eponymous opening track, the tempo experiment/deeply lyrical/foreboding bass line of ‘Here Comes The Night Time’ (another track improved by reading an interview or two), the blues rock foot-stomper that is ‘Normal Person,’ and the punk fake-out on ‘Joan of Arc.’
And that’s just the first side.
For my money, the ‘Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)’/‘It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus)’ pairing is the album’s greatest success. But there you have it again—more work to do. Because you’re missing out on some of the emotional heft of the songs if you don’t put the time into finding out what the Orpheus myth is.
Art that demands time, art that asks us to take a few moments to reflect on its purpose and goals, doesn’t fit well into the current cultural landscape. We just don’t have the time; the content won’t be around that long. Or is it the other way around?
Arcade Fire, I’m sure, will look at the reviews that refuse to take that time, and hold them up, and say, “See? Told you so.” And that won’t prove anything. But at least they’ll be able to sleep at night knowing that the choir, thoroughly preached to, will continue to testify and potentially even contribute to the collection basket; Danielle and I bought tickets for the show in Bridgeport.
In the end, what’s left is the music and our individual response to it. Reflektor hasn’t disappointed in providing the soundtrack to my family’s life yet again. When Danielle and I went to the first of those public warm-up shows that I mentioned above, we felt—old. It was late and the lines were long and our baby was being put to bed 90 minutes away. Water was expensive, I bought a tote bag, it was crowded, and to be honest, the view wasn’t all that great.
But we both wore our costumes and got to hear a couple of old favorites performed and after the show, we got to stand three feet from Win Butler as he DJ'ed the afterparty in a fabric tiger mask. We left before we had to, unable to escape the fact that our lives now require Advance Planning. But during the show, it felt reassuring to just be two freaks again, at least for one night, inside of a warehouse, surrounded by a bunch of like-minded freaks, watching a bunch of freaks play their freak music.
A couple of weeks after the show, on October 23rd, the lyric video for what is debatably Reflektor’s best track, ‘Afterlife,’ was released. We were finally able to indulge in a play-on-repeat of only the second track to be released from the album (in album quality). And what a song it is—classic Arcade Fire—music that is quiet until it begins to swell and finally bursts open and makes you question the future of everything you care about while dancing and crying and laughing.
And then, on Halloween, eight days later, Danielle’s beloved grandmother died. It was two days after Reflektor’s release. All of a sudden, the week we’d spent asking a shimmery “When love is gone/Where does it go?” meant more to us, to Danielle, than we ever could have imagined the first time we heard the band play the song in a warehouse in Brooklyn. I don't know if that association will ever leave either of us.
Arcade Fire’s track record suggests that they release an album every three years. I didn’t recognize the enormity of the life changes coming during the release of The Suburbs in 2010, didn’t recognize the enormity of the life changes to come during the release of Reflektor in 2013. So maybe I’ve got it wrong. Maybe Arcade Fire isn’t that good. Maybe I’m just filling in the holes in their art with the emotions from my life and can no longer separate the two.
But is that misguided? Or is that precisely how music—how all art—is supposed to work?
I’ll let you know in 2016.