Just as I recently decided this blog needed more book reviews, I think it could also use more music reviews. The new Arcade Fire album, Reflektor, is out today. I listened to it pretty much constantly over the weekend and I have many thoughts!
In late summer, when Arcade Fire debuted the weird and wonderful video (disco balls! giant papier mache puppets! David Bowie!) for the album's title track, I knew immediately this album would be very different from the band's previous work (which I love). And it's true.
One of Arcade Fire's strengths has always been its large musical vocabulary. The band's members can play an astounding variety of instruments (hurdy gurdy, anyone?) and are obviously well-versed in a wide range of genres and influences. While the references that flavored their earlier work are still clearly influential (lyrically, "Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)" is as Springsteeny as anything on their super-Springsteeny Neon Bible), the band seems to be channeling anyone and everyone on this new album. On first listen, I jotted down a quick list of every artist that came to mind at various points: Bowie and Springsteen, of course, but also the Stones, Depeche Mode, Helium, The Jam, and The Police. Ostensibly, this is a rock album, but it's also brimming with calypso, blues, ska, and disco. Try not dancing to it.
In a lesser band's hands, this could add up to a huge mess. But Arcade Fire has the artistry to make it work. Stylistically, Reflektor might be all over the place, but thematically, everything hangs together brilliantly.
And "hanging together" is one of its recurring themes. Ideas about community and alienation are all over songs like "Reflektor" and "Here Comes The Night Time II." It's easy to recognize the pleasures and dangers of social media in lines like "We're so connected, but are we even friends?" from the title track. These songs' characters may have social safety nets of sorts, but they also feel compelled to look for outside validation instead of trusting their own instincts. "Please stop wondering why you feel so bad, when you already know," Win Butler sings on "You Already Know."
The lure of the crowd is undeniably strong, and while the lyrics to "Normal Person" warn against the pitfalls of conformity and assimilation, the song's driving, bouncing beat invites images of an arena packed with delighted music fans, all jumping up and down en masse. The album is full of this tension between individuality and the hive mind, and its message seems to be not to swing too far in either direction, and to take everything with a grain of salt.
That's key, because over and over, Reflektor bumps up against things that aren't all they're cracked up to be. From religion to sex, everything comes with unrealistic rules and expectations. As in the title track, the album tells variations on this story of people who try to reach out but often end up disappointedly finding more of the same. We live in a world overwhelmed with stimuli, but how much of it is real? "It's so little that we know, but the cup it overflows," as they say in "Porno."
I love this album, and I'm finding more to love about it with each listen. Arcade Fire makes use of everything that interests them, without worrying about whether it's appropriate or expected. Like magpies drawn to any shiny (reflective!) object, they grab whatever they like and make it their own, turning it into something exciting and thought-provoking in the process. That's what all creativity should be about.