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"Reflektor", and the myth of the radical rock makeover

(To read the original blog entry in Portuguese, click here.)

Ever since Arcade Fire released its latest album, “Reflektor”, I’ve been pondering about how ungrateful the job of a music critic must be. Having to readily form an opinion on something before it becomes yesterday’s papers – in a world where any news are old news before you can say your own name – disturbs the natural flow of appreciation towards art and every one of its manifestations.

I put a large premium on the experience of listening to music. Hitting the “play” button on a record I’ve never heard before is not something I take lightly. I need to take my time with each track, with each idea that comes out of the record, and with the overarching concept that is normally the infallible mark of a great album. Listening to “Reflektor” for the first time in its entirety was a tense experience. Having gotten acquainted with some of the tracks in installments over the course of a few weeks – most of them were live renditions of the album’s songs – I saw myself getting each day less optimistic about the final product the Canadian band was going to offer.

Finally, on Oct. 29th, the day of the official release – having effortlessly resisted the urge to listen to leaked copies of the album – I clicked on the “download” link that came on the email from the official Arcade Fire store and uploaded “Reflektor” into my iPod, in all its double-album glory (not without exasperating myself with the messy track file order – something I took as a bad omen regarding the still unverified qualities of the album).

Having been exposed to the live renditions of some of the tracks – which, seen in retrospect, don’t really do the album any justice in my opinion – my initial excitement, and my expectations for the album slowly gave place to a feeling that, maybe, Arcade Fire had hit its first creative plateau. Which, come to think of it, wasn’t all that improbable, given the incredible artistic achievement of their previous album, “The Suburbs”, with all its cohesiveness and clarity. A musical identity crisis shouldn’t come as a surprise after such a masterpiece. It’s a dilemma that plagues those who reach the top of their game – where to go from here?

In the first listening sessions, “Reflektor” seemed to be just as clear in its purposes. Arcade Fire, despite having a plethora of members, is mostly centered on the artistic dynamics of the songwriting couple Win Butler and Régine Chassagne. The group’s career is, in a way, living testament to their relationship, which started way back in the year 2000 (the band’s first EP was released in 2003; Butler and Chassagne were married the same year). Therefore, every one of their albums, in more or less obvious ways, can be seen as portraits of how the two of them evolved as a couple.

What makes “Reflektor” different from their previous albums is an apparent split of what seemed to be a single, unique persona into two different entities, which, in the songs’ lyrics, seem to scrutinise each other, in the little space left in a life lived between recording studios and tour buses. Two entities who, maybe, just don’t know anymore where one ends and the other one begins – two beings that don’t complement each other in their differences so much as they reflect each other. The album title definitely serves a purpose.

But, despite being seemingly clear in its concept, “Reflektor” lacks the strength and the spirit of their previous albums. The earlier desperation to convey a feeling that, charged with the right dose of urgency, called young, sympathetic souls to heed in anthems such as “Rebellion (Lies)” and “No Cars Go” just isn’t there anymore. The new album, compared to “Funeral”, “Neon Bible” and “The Suburbs”, sounds much more like the lament of a band going through a midlife crisis, disturbed by the intrusions of fame and by way more self-conscious matters than youth alienation – such as, maybe, the difficult art of balancing life as rockstars and the ordeals of family life.

None of these things take away from the album’s greatest, most inspired moments, in songs such as “We Exist”, “Joan of Arc” and “Afterlife”, but, contrary to what more pedantic fans might say (the same ones who deemed their first album their best so far, clearly discrediting their subsequent efforts), “Reflektor” isn’t, by any means, Arcade Fire’s best album. I dare say it isn’t even the best album of 2013 – I’d rather concede that honour to another band, the London-based Savages.

Without going into the discussion of what I perceive as being Arcade Fire’s first artistic failure – the fact that, in the new album, their musical influences were made much more evident, to the point of hinting towards plagiarism in some songs -, “Reflektor” seems like the wrong album at the wrong time, the work of a band so jaded that, despite being constantly praised as the best rock band in the world today (a title I must agree with by all means, and despite the bands’ own shortcomings), hasn’t been exposed to the meat grinding machine of the music industry long enough to be suffering so badly with the current state of affairs, artistically speaking.

Before the new album’s official release, the band gave away hints indicating a new creative direction, painting themselves with less austere, self-righteous colours to favour an image of a band who could have a good laugh at their own expense. As the hints began pouring, I couldn’t help but see the parallels between their transformation and another, more radical one, made by a group that, just as Arcade Fire, also suffered with the stigma of being a band who believes that music can change the world.

In the New Year’s Eve of 1989, after two rollercoaster years that saw them at the top of the world – and, not surprisingly, at the mercy of the usual cynicism of music critics – U2 decided to, as Bono put it, “dream it all up again” before they could become a pastiche of who they were, or used to be. After staying off the radar for a little less than two years, the band re-emerged in 1991 with what can be considered not only their best album, but also one of rock’s greatest records of all time. “Achtung, Baby” is, for all intents and purposes, an audio masterpiece – which, after the kickoff of an accompanying world tour – ZooTV – also became a visual one – in twelve acts, equal parts mysterious, rich, provocative, shocking, and innovative in its effort to capture the zeitgeist of post-fall-of-the-Berlin-wall Europe (Berlin was also the place where, in the legendary Hansa Tonstudio, the band recorded extensive material of what would later become the final version of the album, and its post-reunification atmosphere heavily influenced the concepts the band explored on the twelve album tracks, most notably in the fantastic, and to this day unparalleled, “Zoo Station”).

What differs “Achtung, Baby” and “Reflektor” – besides the latter’s shortcomings when compared to the former – is the amount of effort applied by both bands to get rid of restricting labels, so they could both freely explore their vast creative possibilities, and how those efforts measure up to those labels, and the pains of having to carry them around. When, back in 1989, U2 decided to take a temporary leave to think it all over, they already were, matter-of-factly, the greatest rock band in the world at the time. They were a big mainstream player (surely not as big as today), and they gained world recognition alongside giants of their time. As incredibly talented and innovative as they are, and as passionate as their efforts to make music that can change the world might be, Arcade Fire hasn’t yet reached the same global status as U2 had nearly 25 years ago.

Looking through that prism, “Reflektor” seems like an over-the-top, even radical response to a problem that may not be that big – or, it may not even exist yet. With the final tracks of “The Suburbs” – and the world tour that followed – one could foretell that something even grander was about to come from the hands of Arcade Fire, a band whose musical and creative resources seemed endless. What “Reflektor” suggests is that those resources aren’t endless, and that the band seems resolute in its intent to secure a place in the pantheon of rock giants – “Reflektor” would then be the shortcut to get them there, so the band would finally achieve the universal recognition their fans – and some rock critics – believe they deserve. Judging by a considerable amount of positive reviews and fans’ opinions that verge on hysteria in their efforts to defend the band’s work in the latest album, the shortcut worked (at least partly).

Judging on musical terms only, “Reflektor” is a good, 8 out of 10 album, with its few bad moments (it is simply inexplicable how such a brilliant band decided to go ahead and include such anemic, subpar songs as “You Already Know” and “Porno” – songs that might have actually worked better as B-sides – in the final album tracklist) countered with instant classics, such as the aforementioned “We Exist”, “Joan of Arc” and “Afterlife”, and also “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)”, and potential dancefloor fixtures such as the title track, “Normal Person”, and “Flashbulb Eyes”, with its subtle hints of reggae, dub and dancehall.

Aesthetically speaking, however, the band’s visual transformation into what can only be described as a gentrified salsa band seems like another chapter in Arcade Fire’s overinflated effort to free themselves from the limitations imposed by the critics, their fans’ expectations, and their own previous works. What seems to be sadly lost in the band, however, is the fact that, contrary to what they might think, the quality and impact of their past albums didn’t force them to dutifully oblige to a recipe for success that would only see them in a future of public ridicule (just look at U2). Their rush to fulfill the prophecy, and actually become the world’s greatest rock band, is the very thing that seems to have condemned Arcade Fire to repeat – this time as a pastiche – the formula of the radical musical and aesthetic makeover in order to definitively conquer, and dominate, the current musical landscape.

One thought on “"Reflektor", and the myth of the radical rock makeover

  1. Pingback: "Reflektor" e o mito da transformação radical no rock | Please feed

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