Arcade Fire have been really good for a really long time. Three LPs might not seem like much on paper, but it’s been a thrilling, nail-biting ride in real-time: The holy trinity of Funeral, Neon Bible and The Suburbs (each released three years apart, arriving with the geeky art-rock grandiosity of a new Star Wars film) ranks among the most impressive streaks of recorded rock music in the past couple decades. With a band of this stature, there’s always a bit of dread involved: “When are they gonna fuck it up?” And as early buzz generated around Reflektor, the Montreal band’s fourth album, the moment of reckoning seemed nigh: A double-album co-produced by DFA whiz James Murphy, boasting Haitian rhythms, backed by a hallucinogenic ad campaign?
Only two outcomes seemed possible: Either Win Butler and company were preparing for a mind-altering masterpiece or a big-ass shark-jump. Disappointingly, Reflektor is neither—somehow both sonically polarizing and not weird enough to qualify as a reinvention.
The title track sets up a multi-hued tapestry of deep-thinking and deep groove, Butler and Régine Chassagne (the latter in her native French) gazing into the hollow eyes of their iPhones in a modern tale of tragic romance: “We fell in love when I was 19,” Butler sings, “And I was staring at a screen.” Synths rumble; distortion crashes; congas pound. David Bowie drops by for a random warble. It’s gripping stuff, though it also foreshadows one of Reflektor’s ultimate oddities: its bloat.
It’s easy to overlook The Suburbs’ meatiness: 64 minutes, 16 tracks, multiple reprises. But that album earned its weight—both through its cohesive narrative of suburban disillusionment and quality songwriting. There was no filler on The Suburbs—it was a behemoth because, given its epic presentation, it couldn’t not be. In contrast, Reflektor is the first Arcade Fire album that hauls its fair share of dead weight.
First off, this is the band’s least melodic album. There isn’t a single melody here that assaults the soul like “Sprawl II” or “Neon Bible,” not a single riff that sparks the imagination like “Tunnels” or “Modern Man.” Arcade Fire have always made dense, arty music—but with the accessibility and visceral emotion of a classic rock band. But Reflektor’s 76 minutes often drag (the tuneless balladry of “Awful Sound,” the Gary Glitter-biting “Joan of Arc”), with even the most engaging tracks (the shifting electro-funk sing-along “Here Comes the Night Time”) droning on minutes longer than necessary.
Why a double-album? Who knows? There’s certainly no explanation for the extra five minutes of sonic goo slapped on the end of the album-closing triumph “Supersymmetry.” Or the randomly placed coda “Here Comes the Night Time II.” It’s as if Arcade Fire got sick of making perfect albums, so they decided to try something messier.
Of course, within Reflektor’s polarizing mess are some transcendent moments—particularly when Murphy’s presence is tangibly felt: “We Exist” marries a subdued disco groove to psychedelic squiggles, building to a crescendo of symphonic bombast; compared with the bulk of disc two, “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)” feels oddly invigorated, layering chipmunk-funk harmonies and tumbling waves of bass over ticking time-bomb hi-hats.
It’s a cliché, sure, but also a truth: This would’ve made a killer single album. Butler’s lyrics continue to captivate (gazing into an unwanted “Afterlife,” rioting against the conventions of what a “Normal Person” should be), and there’s enough musical brilliance here to justify that Reflektor Halloween costume you’re so proud of. Yes, Reflektor is very well an intellectual triumph, but—in a first for this band—it’s almost never an emotional one.