Arcade Fire has been touted as Generation Y’s answer to U2, and ever since their 2004 debut “Funeral” tipped off indie rock to strings, sweeping musical arrangements and wholly relatable anthems, it seems they’ve been aspiring to make a statement like “Reflektor.” On its fourth studio album, the Arcade Fire members sound as if they’re claiming their destiny of becoming the world’s most wholeheartedly ambitious rock band. Their last album, 2010’s “The Suburbs,” shockingly captured the Grammy for Album of the Year, so with the music industry finally on full alert, it’s really no surprise Arcade Fire have set the bar so high for themselves on its follow-up.
Dramatic, overarching themes dominate “Reflektor.” One is the Greek myth of Orpheus, the master musician whose tragic, human flaws kept him from saving his love, Eurydice (portrayed in the album artwork). Another is the Caribbean island nation of Haiti, from which band member Regine Chassagne’s parents fled during a harsh dictatorship. Chassagne’s husband, frontman Win Butler, spoke of life-altering experiences in Haiti during the album’s creation, and Haitian musicians contributed to the sessions. Another guest, ex-LCD Soundsystem mastermind James Murphy, lends his expert hand to “Reflektor’s” production, and though his presence is felt, it isn’t overwhelming. This is still an Arcade Fire album through and through — just injected with heavy dance grooves, so that it sounds like a new-millennium response to the Talking Heads’ landmark, Brian Eno-produced album, “Remain In Light.”
Clocking in at an hour and twenty-five minutes, “Reflektor” drags in parts, though it contains plenty of moments (most often in its uptempo, dynamic first half) that sound ready to breathe life into the middling state of commercial rock in 2013. Let Billboard guide you track-by-track through this indispensible release from one of the genre’s most beloved bands.
Production from James Murphy, backing vocals from David Bowie… what could go wrong? Not very much, it turns out, as “Reflektor” is a heroic, majestic opening to the album of the same name. The track takes the sped-up, groove-centric percussion Murphy is known for, and goes one better by employing help from Haitian percussionists Willinson Duprate and Verrieux Zile to take it to an even higher rhythmic level. Butler and Chassagne share in the song’s anthemic chorus: “I thought I found a way to enter; it was just a reflector.”
2. “We Exist” – The impenetrable rhythm keeps going on “We Exist,” as the song struts in with a slick, “Billie Jean”-inspired bass groove. Once the guitars and percussion take over, the already punchy second song soars to new heights.
3. “Flashbulb Eyes” – With plenty of expert musicians in the studio, this one is a clinic on how to execute an intricately multi-tracked song to auditory perfection. The reggae-rock track reels in the listener immediately, and the xylophone that sneaks into the chorus subtly takes the song to the next level.
4. “Here Comes the Night Time” – With all the kinetic energy in “Reflektor’s” first three tracks, the mid-tempo”Here Comes the Night Time” dials down the assault in the nick of time — just don’t underestimate the turn-on-a-dime time change Arcade Fire pulls off near the song’s end. Lyrically, the song deals with Butler’s transformative experiences in Haiti. According to the singer, it was inspired by the desperate plight of refugees fleeing for the United States in boats, and the resistance they received from from the authorities.
5. “Normal Person” – This track reminds us that Arcade Fire can be a rock band when the situation calls for it. There’s a little bit of a past Arcade Fire muse — Bruce Springsteen — evident in the verses, with their jaunty tempo and piano strokes.
6. “You Already Know” – Another winning track supported by a bed of percussion tools, “You Already Know” takes some bass guitar scales and builds a shimmering rock song on top of them. A song like this is a clear link between the new directions of “Reflektor” and the more traditional Arcade Fire material on 2010’s “The Suburbs.”
7. “Joan of Arc” – Arcade Fire closes out the first movement of “Reflektor” in stirring fashion. A frantic, punk-inspired opening quickly morphs into another bass groove that explodes into an arena-worthy chorus and an ode to the historical heroine. Arcade Fire are sometimes likened to U2, and a mammoth song like this makes the comparison sound believable.
As it fades out, “Joan of Arc” is followed by over 10 minutes of noise, that ranges from total silence to whirring electronics to reprisals of earlier songs.
8. “Here Comes the Night Time II” – Finally, Butler’s voice returns, and he whispers, “Here comes the night time,” to open the second movement of “Reflektor.” He says little else on this tepid transitional song, which largely serves to link the two halves together.
9. “Awful Sound (Oh, Eurydice)” – “I know there’s a way we can make them pay,” Butler sings on this hopeful, defiant track that sprawls out across “Reflektor’s” midsection. There’s definite beauty to be found in its lush expanse, but for the first time, the album starts to lag after nearly twenty consecutive minutes of downtempo lull.
10. “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)” – After name-checking his deceased girlfriend in the previous track, Arcade Fire come searching for the mythic Greek musician. Like the “Reflektor” album in a microcosm, this song contains both triumphant swells and moments of delicate near-silence.
11. “Porno” – With its synthetic beats and consistent synthesizer squawks, “Porno” sounds like a track from producer James Murphy’s DFA Records more than anything else on “Reflektor.” There’s even stabs of disco-y strings that sound like something from Hercules and Love Affair’s work for the label. If one was looking for disco-era nostalgia on the album, here it is.
A track that premiered on the “SNL” season opener, “Afterlife” sounds ready to become a staple in the band’s live set. Here, Butler deals with themes of fighting and making up among propulsive drumbeats and more groovy synthesizers.
13. “Supersymmetry” – A pensive, reflective track closes out “Reflektor,” with Butler and Chassagne harmonizing over one of its simplest arrangements.