“If this is heaven/I need something more,” Win Butler and Régine Chassagne, Arcade Fire‘s founding singers, declare in close, almost whispered harmony as the opening title song of their band’s extraordinary new album goes into high gear. “Reflektor” is seven and a half busy minutes of art and party. Over a strident-disco hybrid of the Rolling Stones‘ “Miss You” and Yoko Ono‘s “Walking on Thin Ice,” Arcade Fire and their new co-producer, James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem, throw brittle-fuzz guitar licks, grunting bass, mock-grand piano and ballooning synth chords across deep reverb like frantic instrumental argument. They also find room for David Bowie, one of Arcade Fire’s first and biggest fans, who sings with Butler near the end and repurposes the descending vocal flourish from his 1975 hit “Fame.”
The way Butler and Chassagne, who are married, sing those lines in “Reflektor” is a sublime moment in the commotion. It is also a perfect summary of their group’s still-fervent indie-born hunger after a decade of mainstream success, and specifically, the decisive, indulgent ambition on Reflektor: a two-record, 75-minute set of 13 songs and the best album Arcade Fire have ever made. Founded in 2003, the Montreal-based band – which includes multi-instrumentalists Richard Reed Parry and Butler’s brother Will, bassist Tim Kingsbury and drummer Jeremy Gara – has always thought and acted big, using serious echo and drum-circle-like percussion to amplify the emotional mysteries in Win’s U2-meets-elliptical-Springsteen writing. Arcade Fire’s third album, 2010’s The Suburbs, was urgent and clear, a record about dreams and escape, gassed with classic-rock punch. It was a Number One hit and rightly won a Grammy for Album of the Year.
Reflektor is even better, for this reason: the jarring, charging union of Murphy’s modern-dance acumen and post-punk sabotage with Arcade Fire’s natural gallop and ease with Caribbean rhythm. (Chassagne is of Haitian descent; she and Butler have been active in relief efforts there.) Murphy worked on all but two songs, with most of those tracks near or over six minutes long. The result is an epic made for dancing and sequenced like whiplash. “We Exist” rolls like the pop-leaning late-Eighties Cure, then butts into the paranoid mule-kick reggae of “Flashbulb Eyes.” “Here Comes the Night Time” abruptly zigzags between rapid Haitian drumming and a Talking Heads-at-the-beach stroll – as if Murphy and the band can’t decide which night they like best – while “You Already Know” is buoyant New Wave Motown, with Chassagne’s half of the call-response chorus sparkling in the reverb. That song has to be a single. It ought to be a hit.
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Arcade Fire don’t play a lot of straight-up heads-down rock & roll. But they are damn good at it. “Normal Person” starts with a joke (the sound-effect chaos of a club band plugging in for a night’s work), then sounds like Butler singing in front of the Velvet Underground with a wobbly Little Richard on piano. The opening shock of “Joan of Arc,” the last track on the first disc, is hardcore punk. But the blitz quickly drops into meatier surprise: a Gary Glitter-style stomp. The song – a memorial to female strength and sacrifice – surges to an inevitable conclusion: long keyboard sighs and Chassagne singing in French through warping electronics, as if from inside a ring of fire. It is a dynamic, poignant finish, and I doubt anyone would feel cheated or unhappy if Reflektor ended right there.
But the two discs have their own mood swings, the second less manic and more plaintive, even luxuriant at times. The sequence is loosely based on Greek myth – the rapture, violent separation and eventual reunion of the lovers Eurydice, a nymph, and the musician Orpheus (depicted on the album’s cover). “Feels like it never ends/ Here comes the night again,” Butler sings with an eerie-Neil Young effect in a reprise of “Here Comes the Night Time,” before the trouble starts.
There is dance music in this half of Reflektor too: the industrial-funk strut and Bowie- esque vocal glaze of “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)”; the “Blue Monday”-prime New Order all over “Afterlife.” But this is the push and pull of loss and hope, utter despair and the refusal to quit. “I gotta know/Can we work it out/Scream and shout/Till we work it out,” Butler and Chassagne ask each other, in heated unison, in “Afterlife,” before Reflektor dissolves into the warm vocal-and-electronic exhale of “Supersymmetry.” There is no specific resolution by then. But there is calm, at least for now.
It is tempting to call Reflektor Arcade Fire’s answer to the Rolling Stones’ 1972 double LP, Exile on Main Street. The similarities (length, churn, all that reverb) make it easy. But Reflektor is closer to turning-point classics such as U2’s Achtung Baby and Radiohead‘s Kid A – a thrilling act of risk and renewal by a band with established commercial appeal and a greater fear of the average, of merely being liked. “If that’s what’s normal now, I don’t want to know,” Butler sings in “Normal Person,” sounding like a guy for whom even this heaven, next time, won’t be enough.