In about ten years from now, the world of popular music will probably be in the middle of the great backlash against Arcade Fire. Like U2 before them, they are a mighty, earnest, blazingly unsubtle stadium rock band who have inspired such awe and such exaltation that most of us have been willing to overlook their faults. And like U2 before them, they will eventually have to endure a wave of scepticism, even contempt, from a younger generation of music fans reacting against them in a spirit of self-righteous good taste. The band will be criticised both for their unyieldingly serious outlook (Neon Bible is surely the most self-consciously Important rock album since The Joshua Tree itself) and for their occasionally awkward or corny lyrics. For a time, Arcade Fire will become uncool.
Their new album, Reflektor, may well signal the beginning of this process, for it is the first album on which the band seem to be losing their grip. It is also a major artistic change of direction. Reflektor has already been widely compared to U2’s Achtung Baby, the 1991 record on which Ireland’s finest completely re-invented their sound in order to ensure they remained relevant and vital in the new decade. Perhaps Arcade Fire have sensed, as U2 did, that time is not on their side, and have created Reflektor in a similar attempt to avert their decline and give themselves a fresh start. But Achtung Baby only worked because the band’s musical shift in gears was backed up by consistently excellent songwriting. Arcade Fire, by contrast, have unfortunately come up with their least impressive set of songs to date. Reflektor is not quite a bad record, but it’s a very obviously problematic one, and the result is that it will be remembered not as a triumphant rebirth, but as the moment when the cracks really started to show.
The new order of the day is disco – disco-inflected rock for most of the first disc, full-on disco for the second disc. James Murphy lent a hand on production, and the retro-electronica sound of his work with LCD Soundsystem is clearly audible on Reflektor. Across a series of pulsing soundscapes, the band circle around the themes of alienation, insecurity, and the elusiveness of true connection with other human beings. “I thought I had found a way to enter/But it’s just a reflector” goes the grim, obsessive, chanting refrain on the lead single and opening track, “Reflektor” itself, which is probably the best song on the album. If you’re among those who found it irksome and repetitive when you heard it several months ago, you can safely take that as an indicator that you are not going to like this record.
So what are the problems? For a start, Reflektor feels like a fifty-minute album that’s been put on the rack and labouriously stretched until it runs for seventy-five. Nine tracks out of thirteen go for more than five minutes, and most of them don’t have the hooks to sustain that kind of length. The listener is worn down by endlessly repeated loops of disco, song after song, long after they have outstayed their welcome. Seventy-five minutes happens to be one minute longer than what you can fit on a single CD, a fact which raises the troubling suspicion that the band did it deliberately just because they wanted to make a double album. And though it’s their longest record, it’s also their least varied: when all is said and done, far too many of these songs just sound the same. Régine Chassagne, who has the best voice in the band, never sings lead here; instead we get Win Butler agonising ad nauseam over his many varieties of personal angst (no longer the larger problems of modern society) in his trademark nervous mumble. There’s an undeniable sense of navel-gazing about the whole project.
Win Butler claims never to read anything that’s written about his band, but listening to Reflektor, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the massive quantity of critical approval heaped upon his band has not escaped his attention. This album feels like the work of a band who know they have more artistic capital than most other musicians in the world, and have chosen to spend it to the full. Unfortunately, this has meant that a certain disregard for accessibility, self-discipline, and old-fashioned consideration for listeners has crept into their outlook. Arcade Fire need to strip back to basics, ditch the electronica, and recover the intimacy and humanity that were the true heart and soul of their previous three albums.
This article originally appeared in Woroni on 16 November 2013.