There's a moment early in the film adaptation of The Perks of Being a Wallflower where the three young leads are riding through the Fort Pitt Tunnel into Pittsburgh as "Heroes" by David Bowie blasts on their radio. Emma Watson's troubled Sam climbs into the bed of the pick-up truck her step-brother is driving and spreads her arms out to face the wind while a very stoned Charlie (played by Logan Lerman) turns and says, "I feel infinite." It's an apt description of the sonic evocation of that particular David Bowie song (maybe THE David Bowie song), and with the possible exception of Sigur Ros, no modern act has consistently evoked that feeling of the infinite in all of us as Canadian art rock icons, Arcade Fire, and their newest record, Reflektor, is no exception.
Whether you're talking "Tunnels," "Wake Up," "Sprawl II," "No Cars Go," or "(Antichrist Television Blues)," Arcade Fire's synergy of communal folk, baroque pop, and jagged art rock created a sense of being part of something bigger than the music itself. And say what you will about the pretentions of Win Butler, Regine Chassagne, and crew, but there are few musical experiences like hearing "Rebellion (Lies)" for the first time or discovering that "My Body Is a Cage" is secretly the best track on Neon Bible. And, part of the polarized reaction to Arcade Fire's post-Funeral work is the fact that the freshness of Arcade Fire's sound has been diluted by a cavalcade of pretenders to a genre that they and Neutral Milk Hotel helped create. So, maybe it's the presence of James Murphy as a producer on many of the tracks, but Arcade Fire hasn't sounded this fresh 2004.
And the immediacy and freshness of Reflektor is present from the opening notes of lead-off single (and title track) "Reflektor" until "Supersymmetry" draws the album to a close. "Enveloping," "poetic," "soaring," and "intimate" are all words you can associate with Arcade Fire without generating any controversy. But, never in a million years would you think that "sleek," "funky," and (as odd as it sounds) "sexy" would describe an Arcade Fire record. But even more than the usual adjective mainstays, those latter words are the most apt description of the new direction Arcade Fire takes on Reflektor. Not since Graduation gave birth to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy have we seen an artist so thoroughly embrace a new sound to such overwhelming success.
Take "It's Never Over (Hey Orpheus)." It's a track that I suspect will be criminally looked over in favor of more obvious singles like "Reflektor," "We Exist," or "Afterlife." But, from the moment that the intro fades out and its main guitar riff segues in, the song grabs you by the throat. It's glimmering European dance-hall glitz mixed with a deep, thuddering guitar roots the song simultaneously in the New Romantics revival of bands like Chromatics or Chairlift while simultaneously embracing 80s post-punk that Ian Curtis could have been proud of. This is a song that Arcade Fire shouldn't be capable of but it manages to be arguably the best or second best track on the record.
I didn't mean that to diss the obvious singles on the album because "Reflektor" is possibly the best opening salvo of a record since "15 Step" on In Rainbows. When the song was first released as the album's lead-off single, I was skeptical that a 7:34 long song was the right choice. It was. Not only does "Reflektor" immediately mark the album as "We're not in Kansas anymore, Toto" territory for the band from a musical perspective, it proceeds to set up the tale of tragic love and social disconnect that is the core of the album. And then David Bowie shows up to certify this album's position as the newest heir to the legacy of Bowie's Low and U2's Achtung Baby. If Arcade Fire accomplished nothing else with this album, they'll have at least made it cool to wear your love and inspiration of U2 on your sleeves again.
Even more than Funeral, Reflektor is a concept album with a specific story at it's heart (though it takes breaks here and there to explore other stories, such as a gay teen demanding acknowledgement on "We Exist" or the price of celebrity on "Flashbulb Eyes"). Using the greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice as a starting point to explore the disintegration of a romantic relationship through the lens of the social alienation caused by the easy gratification of technology and the coercive power of the church (a favorite target of Arcade Fire). In the classic myth, Orpheus's prowess as a musician manages to convince Hades to release his lover Eurydice from the underworld on the condition that on their journey back, he never look back to see if she's following him. But, Orpheus lacks faith and just as he's about to escape the underworld with his true love, his doubt causes him to turn around and he loses Eurydice forever.
Reflektor then becomes a meditation on the doubt inherent in romantic love. And, so if you thought Arcade Fire were pretentious before, tracks like "Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)" and "Joan of Arc" will likely only confirm your suspicions. But, by taking these figures of mythic stature and interplaying them in the tragic love story at the heart of the album, Arcade Fire does what it does better than arguably any other band. It makes every pain and every joy and every other emotion seem like the most important thing in the world without coming off as an overly confessional high schooler's melodrama. Even a track like "Porno" (which juxtaposes the sexual objectification of women with young men's inability to act maturely in a relationship) belies a potentially silly conceit with the honest truth of its message and the raw intensity of its feeling.
Reflektor is the best record that Arcade Fire has made since Funeral. Every Arcade Fire album has seen the band try out a new range of sounds, but they've never seemingly left their comfort zone to such a large degree as they do here. "Normal Person" is one of the most in-your-face rock songs the band has ever done with its electric guitar solo, and that sense of defying expectation is written into every line of the record. Though I wish that "Flashbulb Eyes" had maybe been left off the record (because of the way it doesn't fit thematically with the rest of the album), even it shows the band experimenting with their sound in ways they haven't in years. And when your album's biggest problem is a good track that maybe doesn't jive with the rest of the record, you know you've released a grand success.
(One last piece of advice. Listen to this album with a good set of headphones. Anything less like your laptop speakers and you'll be missing the countless production flourishes that make this album an exceptional sonic performance.)