I’m still impressed that Arcade Fire avoided the “sophomore slump.” Although the whole concept of a “sophomore slump” is likely overblown, almost everything was working against Arcade Fire when they set out to record their follow-up to 2004’s landmark Funeral. Not only was Funeral flirting with instant-classic status, but their debut album also seemed to catch lightning in a bottle, an altogether unique emotive quality. Attempting to replicate it would be futile.
And so in 2007 the band released Neon Bible, an album that isn’t necessarily as good as Funeral, but still extremely effective and extremely sincere given the weight of expectation. Neon Bible seems uninterested in what came before it. It’s its own record: thematically and melodically different from its predecessor, yet retaining the band’s lauded style. Although it’s gotten somewhat lost between Funeral and The Suburbs, it remains an essential part of the band’s catalog. Otherwise, we know the deal with The Suburbs: critically acclaimed, commercially successful, and ― still shockingly ― Grammy-approved. Although it essentially placed Arcade Fire as the capital-I, capital-R Indie Rock band of the decade, it more importantly continued their increasingly impressive streak of quality. The Suburbs, to many, confirmed that Arcade Fire had never made a bad album.
As of today, after the release of Reflektor, I maintain that Arcade Fire has never made a bad album, but I think it’s safe to say that they have a clear “fourth-place.” Whereas Neon Bible may have moved on from previous success, Reflektor is infatuated with their past and the reputations this past has spawned. This infatuation manifests itself in indirect but undeniable ways. Although “Flashbulb Eyes,” the second track on the album, is really the only instance where Win Butler directly alludes to the band novel crossover success, most of the thirteen (long) tracks seem to consider self-consciously the band’s current position. It’s a plum position that the band seems deeply dissatisfied with. How else do you explain their fairly radical shift in approach?
Make no mistake, this sounds like an Arcade Fire album. Unfortunately that’s part of the problem at times. While there are several strong songs here, the lesser songs suffer due to the fundamental disconnect between Butler as a vocalist and the danciness the band tries to shoehorn into the proceedings. On the aforementioned “Flashbulb Eyes,” Butler’s vocals vacillate between getting lost amid the melodies or appearing stilted as they attempt to align with the busy sounds. “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)” suffers in this framework as well, stuck awkwardly between percussive elements and an attempt to be down-tempo. It ends up sleepwalking for over six minutes and never delivering any sort of payoff, likely cementing its place as one of the most unsatisfying songs in the band’s catalog. Such messy songs really lead to questions about James Murphy’s judgement overseeing this record. These are B-sides that don’t belong on an already overlong record, as if they were put here only to make the album longer and fulfill the narrative that this really is a Big, Ambitious Album.
In other places Arcade Fire impressively skews their distinct style to suit this new dancy direction. The title track is dramatic, sprawling and a borderline masterpiece. “You Already Know” is a triumph in the band’s effort to appear looser without losing the immediacy that defines their sound. “Joan of Arc” closes out the album’s first disc on a high note with vintage Arcade Fire angst. And “Afterlife,” although lyrically shaky, manages to be just too pretty and breezy to resist.
On the whole, Reflektor doesn’t succeed in its general aims to showcase a more danceable Arcade Fire. The weakness in the lyricism is egregious in places, the interstitials are forced, and there is a clear stylistic disconnect in some of these songs. With that said, calling this a failure would show complete ignorance to some of the truly masterful work here. There’s only a little sonic evolution here ― not nearly as much as they may have wanted ― but the songs that do work are extremely worthy, intriguing additions to the Arcade Fire library and make Reflektor worthwhile, if imperfect.