What does it mean, in this atomized age of ours, to be the biggest rock band in the world? What does it mean to aspire to that?
Our current millennium has been great, so far, for music. It is easier to make, easier to distribute, easier to find, and easier to fall in love with than ever before. More artists are making more of it than they were at the start of the century; more people are listening to more of it, too.
But this is also true: the chances that you and some other human being are actually listening to the same track at any given time have never been slimmer, because in 2013 we all have the ability, at the swipe of a touchscreen, to retreat into a personalized playlist of songs no one else has, by bands no one else has ever heard of, that we downloaded from some torrent no one else has encountered. Why bother with the masses when the masses no longer exist? Why worry about what the rest of the world wants when we can have what we want now?
Ever since Arcade Fire first emerged from Montreal in the early 2000s—a patchwork collective of indie-rock castaways led by the lumbering Texas-born singer Win Butler and his Haitian-Canadian wife Regine Chassagne—they have represented an antidote of sorts to this kind of atomization. They have avoided niches; they have resisted narrowcasting, whatever that means. Instead, their music has always sounded as if it were designed to be loved, desperately and all at once, by as many people as possible.
Music snobs tend to think that this sort of ambition—big songs about big themes sung over big guitars by an old-fashioned rock band that is striving, like the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and U2 before them, to dominate the airwaves—is terribly uncool. It probably is (and has been for a couple of decades). But nerdy or not, Arcade Fire’s stubborn, anachronistic ascent has also been thrilling to follow, at least if you believe that caring about the same songs as a lot of other people is one of the nicest parts of being alive in the first place.
The problem for those of us who have spent the last eight years rooting for Arcade Fire is that they’ve never really managed to seize the mantle of the World's Biggest Band; in one way or another, their first three albums fell short. Funeral (2004) was a remarkable blast of anguish, nostalgia, and energy—one of the best, if not the best, album of the Aughties. Despite rapturous reviews, however, the band itself remained an indie-rock concern, too small to fill a stadium or headline a festival. It wasn’t until 2010’s The Suburbs that the mainstream came calling: first with the top slot on the Billboard charts, then with a Grammy for Album of the Year. The secret, though, was that The Suburbs wasn’t nearly as good as it should have been—less a Big Record than a bloated one.
But now all of that should change. Reflektor, out Tuesday on Merge Records, is a near-perfect album—a release that should finally make Arcade Fire the biggest rock band in the world.
The most distinctive thing about Reflektor is the sound of it—the production, the arrangements, the rhythms. The early buzz was that the band, inspired by their first concert in Haiti, had decided to make a “Caribbean record”; later, with the arrival of “Reflektor,” the album’s first, disco-inflected single, it seemed as if they had recorded a gloomy dance LP (a la David Bowie’s Scary Monsters). Both elements are part of the finished product, but sound-wise the real story here is producer James Murphy. In 2007, Arcade Fire played a show with Murphy’s LCD Soundsystem on Randall’s Island in New York City. LCD Soundsystem almost knocked them back to Canada. Where Arcade Fire was muffled, muddy, and leaden, Murphy & Co. were sharp, chiseled, and rhythmic, with every note in its proper place.
That’s the kind of precision Murphy brings to Reflektor. On “Here Comes the Night Time,” a sinewy guitar bobs and weaves around a slow, moaning synthesizer, then vanishes in the later verses, replaced by a jigsaw puzzle of plunking piano, prominent bass, and clattering drum machines. On “We Exist,” slashing electric guitar chords dodge a swirl of strings and a creepy-crawly “Billie Jean” bass line, never quite colliding. Throughout, the arrangements are full of space and surprise, and because of that the songs never wear out their welcome, even though the majority of them are more than five minutes long. They’re constantly hitting new peaks, turning new corners, introducing new hooks, and settling into new grooves. On previous albums, you got the sense that Arcade Fire had built its massive sound by layering instrument upon instrument; on Reflektor, the instruments only intersect where they have to. It’s the difference between a heavy Gothic cathedral and a skyscraper of steel and glass.
Thematically, Arcade Fire has always gone big as well, and Reflektor is no exception. Funeral was about childhood and death; Neon Bible was about organized religion; The Suburbs was about community and conformity. Reflektor, meanwhile, is about marriage: the way that technology and cynicism can interfere (“Reflektor”); the way you devote yourself to someone like a faith (“Joan of Arc”) the way you muddle through, together, after the first flush of infatuation is gone (“Afterlife”). “We’ll scream and shout,” Butler sings on the latter, “’til we work it out.” His lyrics have been teenagerish since the band began: somewhat judgmental and simplistic, but also passionate, open-hearted, and searching. That vivacious naiveté has served him well, universalizing much of what he writes. But on Reflektor, Butler now sounds wise as well—like he’s writing what he knows. Somehow, he manages to sing about marriage as we all imagine it will be before we’re married and marriage as it really is, often in the span of a single song; real love is always chafing against ideal love, imbuing each track with an emotional friction that feels deeply familiar.
The finest songs on Reflektor—“Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)” and “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)”—are the best Arcade Fire has ever released. They appear back to back at the start of the second disc. “Awful Sound” begins in a minor key, with a clackety, rumbling beat. “When I say I love you, your silence covers me,” Butler sings. “It’s an awful sound.” Suddenly, the drums settle down. The key goes major. An airy acoustic guitar begins to strum; a synthesized orchestra begins to swell. “Take all your pain, and put it on me,” Butler continues. “So you can breathe.” It’s a gorgeous shift, both lyrical and musical. “It’s Never Over,” meanwhile, may be even better: an asymmetrical, syncopated stomp that contains the loveliest refrain on the record:
It seems so important now But you will get over And when you get over When you get older Then you will remember Why it was so important then
Pay attention, and you’ll notice that “Awful Sound” and “It’s Never Over” reenact the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice—“the musician who plays songs that are so beautiful that they persuade Death to give his lover a second chance, though the musician will only lose her again”—as a kind of love story about Butler and Chassagne struggling to stick together. (Rodin’s sculpture of Orpheus and Eurydice appears on the album’s cover.)
But the first time I heard these songs, I wasn’t thinking about Greek mythology. Last week, after learning that Reflektor has leaked, Arcade Fire posted the entire record on YouTube. Links began appearing on Twitter and Facebook; fans began to click through and listen. When I got to “Awful Sound,” and then to the refrain of “It’s Never Over,” I thought about all of the people who were enjoying this brand-new music along with me—why “it seems so important now / but you will get over” suddenly seemed to mean so much to me, and what it might mean to them. A good band is one of the few forces left in our fragmented world that can make you feel, for the length of a song, like you’re part of something greater than yourself. Arcade Fire is proof that bigger can still be better.