Pretty much every review of Arcade Fire’s new album Reflektor, positive or negative, has referred to it as “ambitious.” Rolling Stone‘s David Fricke gushes about the record’s “decisive, indulgent ambition”; Consequence of Sound calls Win Butler “rock ‘n’ roll’s Christopher Nolan, a hyper-literate artist who crafts reliable, intelligent, and challenging blockbuster events that sweep our minds away,” and even the normally sensible Lindsay Zoladz at Pitchfork manages to describe the song “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)” as “aim[ing] to be nothing less than all the Beatles songs at once (‘Hey Jude’ and ‘Revolution 9’ included)… it inevitably falls short, but it’s hard not to admire the effort.”
OK. Here’s the thing. It’s not hard not to admire the effort. Or, perhaps more accurately, the effort is not really the point. As a concept, ambition is a curiously fraught one, at least as far as rock ‘n’ roll goes. This is a genre, after all, that’s still beholden to the mythology of “selling out,” where a band is expected to sort of take success in a nonchalant manner, as if it’s somehow tangential to the nature of their art, man. This, obviously, is silly — of course we all want to be successful. Of course we all want to do something amazing, and for people to recognize that.
In that respect, it is indeed somewhat refreshing to see a band try to do something big, something spectacular. Some of the greatest records ever made have also been the most ambitious, and if people weren’t prepared to reach for the sky (and risk falling on their faces while doing so), we wouldn’t have art at all. But equally, plenty of bands before Arcade Fire have gone all out for sprawling, multi-disc excess. Some have succeeded brilliantly (The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street), some have stumbled (The Clash with Sandinista!), and some have fallen on their arses to hilarious effect (Oasis with Be Here Now).
Ultimately, we’re not in this business to celebrate ambition. We’re here to judge whether the ambition is fulfilled. And to be honest, if you decide that you’re going to release an interminable double album based around the conceit that the second half is literally a reflection of the first — Reflektor, geddit? — and precede its release with a viral marketing campaign and a whole lot of guff about attributing its songs to a fictional band called “The Reflektors”… well, you’d better make sure that it’s good.
And the problem with Reflektor is that it’s not good. It’s essentially The 20/20 Experience of indie rock — an album that’s way too long on duration and way too short on substance. You know how there are those songs that are relatively long but seem to fly by? “Teen Age Riot,” say, or “Walk On By,” or “The Curse of Millhaven”… you can probably think of a million more. And conversely, then there are those songs that aren’t long at all, but seem to drag? Sadly, Reflektor is an entire album of the latter. The title track on its own seems to drag on for decades, so much so that you end up checking your watch while wondering just how many more times Win Butler can say “It’s just a Reflektor” before time itself comes to an end.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the whole mythology that seems to have grown up around ambitious records is that they have to be long. And serious. And epic. This album is certainly that; there seems to be a bitter irony in the part of “It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus)” where Butler chants “It’s never over” again and again and again, so much so that you wonder whether he may actually be correct. And Arcade Fire have always been grand and theatrical. But for Funeral, still their finest moment, that theatricality was built on genuine emotion — mainly, as has been well documented, the death of various band members’ relatives. And it showed.
By contrast, Reflektor feels full of empty gestures. Pitchfork’s review, and several others, have compared the band to U2, and suggested that James Murphy — wheeled in to produce this record — is their Brian Eno figure. But while the ‘Fork suggest that this is the band’s Achtung Baby, I’d argue that in fact it’s closer to Pop, the sound of a band chafing at the constraints of its past and trying to embrace new directions, but doing so in a manner that feels more awkward than revelatory. “Do you like rock ‘n’ roll?” asks Butler at the start of “Normal People,” tellingly adding the caveat, “Because I don’t know if I do.” Hence, presumably, the presence of Murphy, and the awkward sub-DFA stylings that adorn several of the songs here.
As a whole, this is the sound of a band that is searching for something new to say, which may or may not be fascinating in a sort of grand conceptual sense but frankly just doesn’t make for particularly interesting listening. Arcade Fire are not the first band to come up against this wall: you have something to say, you say it, and all of a sudden you’re very rich and people are looking at you expectantly for your next grand statement.
This album tries for grand statements, alright, but in the hail of half-formed ideas and concepts and images — Orpheus and Eurydice; Joan of Arc; our relationship with technology; Kierkegaard; the evils of Christianity; the recurrent image of reflection and symmetry; and, um, Internet porn — there’s nothing really to grab onto, nothing to relate to at an emotional level. The Washington Post‘s Chris Richards, in a review that has already gotten everyone arguing, suggested this morning that this record is “something conservative pretending to be something bold.” That’s certainly true of some of the lyrics — especially the whole technology-as-alienation angle, which feels like a sort of sub-OK Computer concept delivered 20 years too late, as relevant as old people ranting about those damn kids with their smartphones. But it’s more accurate to say that Reflektor is something empty trying to be something profound.
For a band whose music has always been built on emotional weight, this is a problem. About halfway through my second listen to Reflektor, I got to thinking about my favorite Arcade Fire song — “In the Backseat,” the last track off Funeral, wherein Régine Chassagne uses the process of learning to drive as a metaphor for adulthood and figuring out to deal with bereavement and grief. It’s simple, effective and deeply moving… all the things that the songs on Reflektor are not.
It’s perhaps more instructive than anyone involved realizes, too, that David Bowie’s guest vocal on the title track rather echoes his vocal on “Fame,” a song from a period where his ambition and excess had become conflated into a sort of grand blizzard of cocaine megalomania. He recovered from that with an album infinitely more ambitious than Young Americans or Station to Station: Low, which clocks in at under 40 minutes long.
Restraint and simplicity — and, most importantly, genuineness — are sometimes all you need. Reflektor is ambitious, sure. But ultimately it’s a whole lot of bluster.