In the Chinese tradition, 2013 is the year of the snake—marked by transformation, a shedding of the skin. This certainly holds true for Arcade Fire’s fourth album, a record that signals a major shift in sonic direction for the band—just as it held true for Kanye West’s Yeezus in June.
Like Yeezus, Reflektor plunges headlong into dance music, notably via crisp disco stylings courtesy of LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, the record’s producer. Also like Yeezus, Reflektor is indebted to British new-wave synth-pop and “one-two-free-fowah!” punk. The third congruity is that both albums are bummer records—albeit groovy ones. Yeezus, on the whole, is thrillingly grim, just as Reflektor is steeped in bleak melancholia and a very urban kind of menace: wild, feral and flashy-eyed.
One can hardly imagine two artists getting on worse at an imaginary party neither would be invited to, and yet these two key musical moments of 2013 have so much in common—even down to the metallic dancehall beats that punctuate and puncture West’s “Send It Up” and Arcade Fire’s “Flashbulb Eyes.”
Much has already been made of the Haitian influences on the Arcade Fire album. The band’s leaders, Régine Chassagne and Win Butler, spent time in Haiti (Chassagne’s home country), steeping themselves in its sounds and culture—and you can hear it in the album’s title track, which has the visceral, slightly panicky feel of getting lost at a carnival. But as exotic as it gets, Reflektor still feels like the city in darkness.
Cacophony and harmony roll in and out of Reflektor, within the songs themselves—“Here Comes the Nighttime” forms itself around a glorious, languid, musky beat, which squeals into a harum-scarum second section like a skidding car—and through its organization as a double album of sorts. The record’s first half is generally shouty and defiant. It is hot, humid and a bit overwhelming. The second part is far sweeter, lusher and easier to like, containing one of Arcade Fire’s most intimate moments yet, “Awful Sound (Oh, Eurydice)”: a seeming serenade to Chassagne’s troubled upbringing, marrying “Cosmic Dancer” strings to clattering, fluttering drums.
If Yeezus has West acting out a cartoon of himself at points, Reflektor finds Arcade Fire repeating itself via well-worn phrases (“Where do we go now?” “We can leave today!”). Where the band’s first album felt more urgent and tearful, Reflektor has a certain despair to its existential questioning.
Both Reflektor and Yeezus urge us to be brave and bold, to dance while Rome burns. They are records that refract teenage intensity through adult experience—a most potent combination. Perhaps most curiously of all, both these albums are presented by artists who became parents for the first time this year (in the band’s case, Chassagne and Win Butler): the final stage in a period of creative shape-shifting—and of course, the beginning of something completely new.
Reflektor by Arcade Fire is out Mon Oct 28, 2013