I celebrated Tuesday's release by reading an album review from Rolling Stone for the first time in what's probably been about ten years. It was weirdly satisfying to see David Fricke make overt comparisons to all the baby-boomer greats (U2, The Rolling Stones, Talking Heads, Bruce Springsteen, The Cure, Neil Young, the Velvet Underground, Brian Eno, and so on). The write-up ends by placing Reflektor in the same league as game changing records by Radiohead (Kid A), the Rolling Stones (Exile on Main Street), and U2 (Achtung Baby). Along with Pitchfork, The Quietus made similar comparisons. Perhaps it was in the band's press release. Most of this critical pandering is useless and boring, but it's also somewhat accurate, as it has been for their previous albums. Of course Arcade Fire aren't likely to let go of the Talking Heads, whose influence is obvious on songs like the jittering "Normal People" and the meditative "Afterlife." The U2 comparison isn't that far-off either. On a mid-tempo track like "Porno" Butler's sultry croon is pure Bono, and when you've got lyrics like "there's so little that we know" or "it's the only world we know" shouted into what sounds like empty space, U2's early 90s wanderings certainly come to mind.
Despite its 80 minute running time, Reflektor feels exceptionally well-crafted and well-paced: as it presses on, Arcade Fire manage to earn your trust, despite juggling a variety of things that don't at first glance fit together. You've got the influence of Haitian culture driving the rhythm and the lyrical content of a good portion of the album, a lot of meandering lyrics about the afterlife, the usual adolescent discomfort, a lot of self-referential "reflections" on the nature of art, and some pretentious Greek mythology thrown in just for kicks. And all this comes with several finishing touches from former LCD Soundsystem dude James Murphy, who, by the sounds of it, didn't actually do that much for the songs, but adds even more cultural capital to the whole endeavour.
The themes are BIG but remain rooted in vague specifics. In an interview with Maclean's, Win Butler explains how much of them came from a recent trip to Haiti:
There’s a crazy energy in Port-au-Prince when the sun goes down, because there is no electricity in a lot of the city. A lot of parts of the city are pretty dangerous, and people are rushing around trying to get home. There’s also this nightlife thing that happens, and it’s a combination of really dangerous and fun. Whenever you go to Haiti there are all these packs of missionaries wearing the same T-shirts that say “Jesus loves Haiti” or whatever. You ask them, “What are you guys doing?” And they say, “Oh, we’re going to paint houses.” Well, why don’t you just pay Haitians to paint the houses? I’m sure they’d love to do that. There’s a strange idea of going there to teach people about Jesus, while I’m sure Haitians know more about Jesus than these people do; they’re the most religious people. After the earthquake, people were singing songs of praise in the street. It’s a strange idea that we can teach these people something. The music in Haiti is all tied up in voodoo and African rhythm and so there’s this funny thing: go to a voodoo ceremony and then go to a Catholic church and tell me which music you liked better, to which one the music is more integral.I want to think that this has everything to do with why the motif of reflection came to dominate the conceptual structure of the album. Removed from this context, the theme of reflection can be easily glossed over as a way of celebrating art as such. In Lindsay Zoladz's Pitchfork review, for example, Arcade Fire's reflexivity is more or less equivalent to musicians (and critics) giving themselves a pat on the back:
With its clipped snippets of airwave chatter (the BBC's Jonathan Ross makes a cameo), warped VHS hum, and retro-luminosity that nods to a time when synthesizers connoted un-jaded wonder and revelation, Reflektor is designed to be an homage to the many ways music is transmitted, discovered, and incorporated into people's lives.Ian Cohen tweaks the sentiment a little bit in his earlier review of the band's first single, suggesting that the album's big theme is "the possibility that art isn't a shared, living experience but rather a mirror for our own projections and preconceptions." Well, no shit. I like to think that Arcade Fire have a more nuanced understanding of the work they're producing. Most post-colonial theory begins with the assumption that the Occident has constructed other cultures in way that suits its own purposes (be they economic, symbolic, or political). In Haiti's history, we see reflections of our own violent history, but we also see more. Arcade Fire aren't so naive that they haven't considered the implications of what it means to appropriate other cultural forms, especially when the culture in question bares obvious traces of Western European imperialism of the worst kind. Butler is no post-colonial studies expert, but by drawing out certain elements from his experience in Haiti (most strikingly on "Here Comes the Night Time" ) while employing a self-conscious conceit like the mirror, Butler's lyrics suggest something that usually gets left out of the discussion when privileged white folks use things from other cultures: the appropriated image of another culture isn't simply problematic because of its content but because of its very form. Or, to put it in Arcade Fire's terms, it's not simply the reflection that's at issue but the reflector. In other words, it's important to be conscious not just of what's being represented but how representation itself is a form of cultural production that has a history. The danger in this kind of thinking is that it can put all the artistic agency in colonial hands, and that's obviously not what's going on here. While this insight isn't made explicit on Reflektor, it's there in the background, and along with it is an assortment of other loose threads that don't necessarily reveal their origin, Occidental or otherwise. Heaven or "Afterlife" is another recurring topic that seems to fit well with a critical view of representation and its use as an colonial weapon for maintaining oppressive power structures.
As has no doubt been said ad nauseum, with Reflektor, Arcade Fire have devised their own hall of mirrors, but what makes this album truly worthwhile is that they've also given us some of the hints we need in order to find a hammer.