Failed Connection: On Arcade Fire’s “Reflektor”

On September 9th of last year, Arcade Fire released an unusual music video to accompany the launch of the first single from their fourth album, Reflektor.  The plot of the video is not terribly noteworthy or unconventional – it features a young Haitian woman dancing in various locales, culminating with a wild street party in the dead of night.  Unique to the clip, however, is that the viewer is able to alter the images onscreen using a synced-up smartphone.  Waving the phone left to right, for example, might create a haze effect onscreen that mirrors the viewer’s gesture.  The viewer’s mobile device, in effect, becomes the eponymous “reflektor” that alters how they see the music video.

It’s an amusing piece of audiovisual wizardry that also comes across as a gimmick.  None of the effects amount to anything more than you would find in an equalizer.  But there is one slightly jarring moment at the end of the video that gives the viewer pause.  At this point, the computer screen approximates a cracked mirror through which the young woman is visible.  Suddenly, the woman disappears and the viewer’s face is imposed on the glass shards, thanks to the activation of the viewer’s webcam.  And lo and behold, the woman appears on the viewer’s phone or tablet, having made the virtual jump from big screen to small.

It’s a strange feeling to suddenly encounter your own face in those glass shards and even stranger to essentially hold the woman, previously an abstracted “other,” in the palm of your hand.  That feeling is what Arcade Fire wanted to elicit with this project – a prompted pulse to reconsider how the devices you use define your relationships with others, as well as your conception of yourself. 

This deep-seated introspection is at the core of what Arcade Fire tries to convey on Reflektor.  The album is framed as a mediating mechanism to break through the digital stupor that comes from prolonged electronic communication.  Reflektor has appeared on a host of 2013’s “Best Albums” lists, in large part because of its engagement with this theme.  Countless reviews of the album have praised its insightful look into how people communicate via technology and its illuminating commentary on avoiding the dangers of cold, abstracted interaction. 

I disagree with these positive reviews.  Arcade Fire has produced an album that has a host of catchy moments and individual triumphs but sags under the weight of lazily mashed-together lyrics and themes.  Why does this matter?  Reflektor underscores and calcifies a number of tendencies that Arcade Fire has been cultivating since their first album.  As the biggest independent band in the world and a shorthand for independent pop music as a whole, it bears discussing how and why they’ve gotten to this point and the ways their musical inclinations begin to falter on Reflektor.

Arcade Fire’s first three albums were solid affairs that, in retrospect, generated critical acclaim perhaps incommensurate with the quality of the final products.  Funeral is a simple but compelling reflection on death whose sound, unique in 2003, has not proved timeless.  Neon Bible is an overbearing critique of religion that features a mixed bag of beautiful and middling songs.  The Suburbs, in my opinion their best album, is a fully-realized look at suburban life that’s overly long but contains some of their most compelling work.  It is not a world-beating record and does not deserve the scores of accolades it earned in 2011, including the Grammy for Album of the Year, but it accomplishes its aims with consistency and nuance. 

In all three previous albums, lead singer Win Butler was able to milk the dichotomy of “us vs. them” to moderate, occasionally even great, success.  Funeral saw “us kids” confronting adult hypocrisy, Neon Bible featured outsider critiques of poisonous adherence to religious monocultures, and The Suburbs was a twenty-first century meditation on alienation (“us kids vs. society,” if you will).  Reflektor tries for a new variation on the same theme, but there’s no strong central narrative arc, no convincing foil, to hold any attempted contrasts together. 

The result is a weak appropriation of the “us vs. them” idea that’s far less incisive than anything Arcade Fire has produced in the past.  We’re treated to tepid, straw-man attacks on the “other” in songs like the mundane and cringe-worthy “Normal People,” which strips away the characterizations and differences (age, religion, social orientation) that make “us vs. them” a potentially fruitful concept.  Instead, we’re left with the most basic, torpid contrasts that lead to pointless musings on whether a “normal person” is “cool enough” or “cruel enough.”  “Normal people” is a loaded term that begs to be either avoided entirely or commented upon intelligently, and Butler provides no nuanced evaluation or lyrical meat for listeners to chew.  He’s content to employ it without qualification and we’re not better off for it.

This is a recurring problem throughout Reflektor.  On Arcade Fire’s previous albums, one of Butler’s strengths was his ability to link together impressionistic imagery and pointed motifs or themes around an overarching concept.  The summation of these motifs usually created depth and multiple angles from which the songs could be approached and appreciated.  In The Suburbs, for example, we see recurring automobile references that suggest an ability to navigate the suburban wasteland but never to escape it. 

While Butler is quite good at crafting imagery that gives his albums thematic consistency, his actual lyrical prowess (his ability to write sharp, insightful lines) has been inconsistent.  For every concise, intriguing idea or theme (see “My Body is a Cage” or “Half-Light II”), there is a lyric that is either repetitively simplistic, fails to evoke meaning, or comes across as heavy-handed and overly preachy (“Rebellion” or “Intervention”).  But for the most part, in the past, the tightness of each album’s thematic core has balanced the lack of specificity and categorical quality in his lyrics. 

This isn’t the case for Reflektor.  Butler says that the album was inspired by the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, the film Black Orpheus, Søren Kierkegaard’s essay “The Present Age,” and his and wife Régine Chassagne’s time in Haiti.  Unfortunately, these themes never quite mesh into a convincing narrative as in The Suburbs.  We’re left with scattershot reflections on death OR isolation OR the link between the two in the Orpheus and Eurydice myth.  This lack of cohesion isn’t necessarily a fatal flaw, but it’s more glaring and grating because Arcade Fire have already made albums that explored these themes.  We really don’t need another analysis of how “we’re so connected, but are we even friends?”  It’s a question they addressed at length in The Suburbs, and by now it’s a stale prompt that any Facebook user already asked in the preceding five years. 

The thematic looseness of the album makes the lyrical insufficiencies more noticeable than those of any previous Arcade Fire record.  And they are problematic indeed – this is far and away Butler’s weakest set of lyrics.  Repetition is the order of the day; “You Already Know” features the title phrase repeated 16 times throughout the song, and other tracks suffer the same lyrical stagnancy that precludes the presence of meaningful color, plot, and poetry on the album.  Tired love tropes that add little to the Orpheus / Eurydice myth are employed over and over again.  Here’s a sample lyric from “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)”:

You came home from school

And knew you had to run

Please stop running now

Just let me be the one

Goodness gracious.  Other lines in the album, probably meant to be amusing or pseudo-profound (or both), fall equally flat.  “Oh man / Do you like Rock and Roll music? / ‘Cause I don’t know if I do,” Butler sings on “Normal Person.”  (IRONY!)  “What if the camera / really do / steal your soul?” he breathes on “Flashbulb Eyes.”  (INTRIGUE!)  These lines, and others throughout the album, do not convey the sense of sly amusement Butler was probably aiming for.  They sound ridiculous.

Again, it’s a shame that so much of Reflektor is comprised of this dreck.  The motifs that Butler employs throughout the album are actually well thought-out and complement each other nicely.  Much has been said about how Reflektor is thematically similar to U2’s Achtung Baby, which is loosely centered on the idea of losing oneself in a hazy electro-Joycean Nighttown.  Arcade Fire drills even deeper with this idea, conceiving this journey as one that explores the dividing lines between authenticity and life, illusion and afterlife.  References to and dichotomies involving mirrors, prisms, cameras/lenses, (super)symmetry, and invisible dividing lines provide a promising vehicle for realizing these contrasts.  But the total lack of connective tissue between these ideas and consistently meaningful lyrics to convey them means the concepts are never fully developed.  Instead, we’re left with musings about “reflektors” and “resurrectors” that provide few memorable moments of cohesion or insight.

Also problematic is the near-total disconnect between the style of music and the album’s themes.  The Suburbs is a well-crafted album because its musical and lyrical content align almost perfectly; Arcade Fire’s tendency to create simple, lush, hook-laden songs provided a lockstep complement to their commentary on the circuitous helicon of suburban life.  The music reflected the album’s themes of being trapped and going “around and around and around and around” while simultaneously serving as the primary vehicle for escaping that rut.  There’s a reason why “Sprawl II” sounds as glorious as it does when the album is coming to a close. 

Reflektor posits an attitude of looseness and partying inspired by the Haitian street festivals that Butler and Chassagne participated in while visiting Haiti.  The interplay between this kind of partying and the album’s focus on death isn’t unusual, as many cultures mark funerals or mourning periods with celebrations.  But the record’s other emphasis on alienation is a strange bedfellow for music ostensibly made to have a good time.  There is evident jubilation on “Afterlife” and “Here Comes the Night Time,” but it’s a moody jubilation tinged with the fear of isolation.  Many of Arcade Fire’s earlier albums featured juxtapositions of uplifting anthems and soaring chords with gloomy, introspective (some might say self-indulgent) tracks that drove the thematic basis for their albums.  But here, Reflektor’s similarly introspective bent is severely at odds with the near-uninterrupted stream of upbeat rhythms and melodies that the band deploys.  In particular, Butler’s singing frequently comes across as almost too faint to embody the energy and excitement these songs would seem to demand. 

Talking Heads have been a constant comparison for Arcade Fire’s target of loose, slick dance-pop-rock with Reflektor.  I guess this makes sense to the extent that they’re white people making supposedly rhythmic-centric music, but I don’t think this appraisal is particularly apt, at least when the supposed connections are analyzed in greater detail.  Most critics have drawn analogies to Talking Heads’ incorporation of African beats and employment of Brian Eno as producer for Remain in Light, in that Arcade Fire added some Haitian flourishes and consulted James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem for Reflektor.  But save for “Here Comes the Night Time,” only a couple of the tracks on Reflektor have any appreciable world music influence, and only a handful deliver on the supposed dance promise that the record has made.  “Joan of Arc,” “Normal People,” and “You Already Know” are all straightforward rock pieces.  “We Exist,” “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice),” and “It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus)” only have slight dance or rhythmic influences, including hooky bass grooves and some funky drum loops.  Over half of the album has no appreciable world or dance influence at all.

More importantly, I’d argue that the musical concepts that underpin Remain in Light are almost totally absent from Reflektor, which reduces the number of meaningful comparisons in virtuosity or even basic intent that can be made between the two records.  Here’s David Byrne discussing the methodology behind the “modular music” of Remain in Light:

While the groove usually remained constant, different combinations of instruments would be switched on and off simultaneously at different given times.  One group of instruments that produced a certain texture and groove might eventually be nominated as a “verse” section, and another group – often larger-sounding – would be nominated as the “chorus.”  Often in these songs there was no real key change.  The bass line tended to remain constant, but one could still imply key modulations, illusory chord changes, which were very useful for building excitement while maintaining the trance-like feel of constant root notes.

This kind of recording process simply doesn’t seem to be present in Reflektor, save for a couple of instances on tracks like “Porno.”  There is a greater emphasis on bass grooves and more complex rhythm work than in Arcade Fire’s three previous albums, but it’s not a wholesale change or reordering of what they did in the past.  So I don’t really understand criticisms like this from Steven Hyden: “Instead of the orchestral sweep of the first three records, Arcade Fire has rebooted as a rhythm-oriented outfit. This requires an entirely new skill set that this band simply does not have.”  I don’t have a background in musical arrangement, but to my ears, this isn’t even an issue that crops up on Reflektor.  Arcade Fire isn’t doing anything structurally different this time around.  They’re tweaking the emphasis on a few songs – often with mixed success.

How much you get out of the individual songs and general musicianship on Reflektor will vary depending on your musical background and preferences.  I don’t know enough about technical music criticism to say whether each song is performed poorly or not, and I find it foolish to engage in criticism of timbre and texture.  (I don’t particularly like the guitar tone on “Joan of Arc” but many reviewers find this to be one of the album’s stronger tracks.)  That said, there are a few general trends on Reflektor worth identifying.

“We Exist,” “Normal Person,” “You Already Know,” “Joan of Arc,” “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice),” and “It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus)” can essentially be reduced to individual hooks – the slick “Billie Jean”-esque rhythm on “We Exist,” the chorus on “Joan of Arc,” the roiling bass on “It’s Never Over.”  The Orpheus-Eurydice pair, in particular, are unnecessarily long.  These songs provide immediate gratification and little else. 

“Afterlife” and “Porno” are similar to the aforementioned hook-defined songs but feature additional depth or characteristics worthy of further consideration.  In “Afterlife,” Chassagne’s vocals shine, and the driving drums and the irregular synth pulses add a Haitian rhythm that gives the song a unique sound on the record.  Butler’s lyrics are also probably at their most affecting as he sings about what happens “after all the breath and the dirt and the fires are burnt… after the hangers-on are done hanging on to the dead lights / of the afterglow.”   “Porno” actually lacks a hook like the other songs mentioned earlier, but it combines the wonky synth of Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” with a chorus melody that echoes Kanye West’s “Runaways.”  It’s a deeply repetitive track and most closely hits at the Talking Heads comparison, but it’s also saddled with embarrassingly sterile lyrics. 

The title track is a seven-minute muted disco banger that develops nicely into an extended groove at the end.  But it’s mixed very quietly and Butler’s faint vocals sap the song of energy at the beginning.

“Here Comes the Night Time II” and “Supersymmetry” are short, lush, beautiful pieces that fit well as the opener and closer to the second disc but are let down by the one-trick ponies saddled in between.

“We Exist” is straight dub with horns.  I found it to be one of the more successful tracks on the album because it’s short (the only track under three minutes) and doesn’t even attempt for profundity, as most of the other songs on this album do.  The ridiculous camera lyrics don’t matter much because the overdubbed, washed-out bass and congas are blowing up your headphones or stereo.  One can imagine a scenario where Arcade Fire trimmed most of the cuts on this album to fit this kind of self-contained, self-justifying format: sub-3:00 songs that provide a fun hook and don’t shoot for philosophical depth (and miss). 

The best track on the album, in my opinion, is “Here Comes the Night Time,” which is also one of the best songs Arcade Fire has recorded.  It’s a mess in the best possible way- a frenzied, pulsing mariachi opening eventually transitions into a simple bass-loop-driven slow-burner.  Twinkling pianos and synths along with Butler’s lyrics about nightfall paint a refreshingly vivid picture of dancing on a warm summer evening.  As opposed to the majority of tracks on Reflektor, “Here Comes the Night Time” also employs form changes and instrumental variation throughout.  This was the most compelling recording on Reflektor by a significant margin, though the lyrics veer into preachy clichés as the album comes to a close.

If you’re a fan of Arcade Fire songs like “Month of May” and “Wake Up,” you’ll probably enjoy this album as most of the songs feature similar rock riffs and heavy punchiness.  If you prefer airier, melodious tracks like “Keep the Car Running” or “Une Annee Sans Lumiere,” the music on Reflektor is more of a mixed bag and might get old quickly. 

In the end, though, the quality of the music doesn’t make up for the album’s lyrical insufficiencies, especially given Arcade Fire’s penchant for thematic depth.  Reflektor simply doesn’t have the cohesiveness to convey anything more than semi-interlocked ruminations on technological interaction.  More damning is the band’s reticence to move beyond criticism of ideologies and trends.  Through all four of their records, Arcade Fire has taken an almost clinical approach to their subject matter, trying to tease out revelations under a probing artistic microscope.  Increasingly this lends their work a sort of coldness and abstraction that I’ve found to be off-putting.  Reflektor is no different, with an excessive number of tracks lamenting the difficulty in making connections between people.  Creating a prescriptive analysis of such problems only goes so far in prompting the listener to forge an emotional link with the music itself. 

Perhaps that’s the core problem with Arcade Fire in the wake of their fourth album.  They focus so much on the difficulty of making connections across oceans of artifice and differences (age, religion, geography, occupation) that, eventually, it becomes tough to connect with the band about anything outside their criticisms.  What do Arcade Fire stand for?  Fans of the band will no doubt point to the deep connection between Chassagne and Butler, the band’s hymns to youthful vigor, and their powerful and energetic live shows- all things that emphasize just how amazing connection can be.  But the bulk of their discography, especially when examined after the release of Reflektor, subordinates this emphasis on connection to the damned difficulty of actually making it happen.  (Literally damned – in the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, Orpheus retrieves Eurydice from hell but loses her forever before she exits the underworld.)  It’s not exactly galling or infuriating that Reflektor maintains an upbeat attitude while pounding the same drum, but the tune has become stale.  And relationships defined by their shared mistrust and disaffectation lack the substance for extended longevity and passion.  One has to wonder if this will be a problem the band will face with casual fans going forward. 

One qualification: many music commentators have bitterly criticized Arcade Fire over the tangential controversies that arose during the marketing and touring of Reflektor, including the album’s excessive and annoying advertising and the “pretentious” dress code request the band put out for show attendance.  The supposed narrative here is that Arcade Fire is becoming overly haughty and selling out, reinforcing a holier-than-thou attitude that speaks to the lack of connection I described in the previous paragraph.  I don’t agree with these criticisms.  The ads were kind of annoying and the dress code request is a little quirky, but neither decision can meaningfully contribute to an indictment of the band’s authenticity.  I also disagree with any arguments that the band is willingly false and smarmy for propagating material about exclusion and loneliness while achieving superstar status and playing to millions of people.  The marketing and performance of the album do not mandate that the band’s outlook must change, nor do they render the themes of the album hypocritical and false.  I find the album’s lyrical insufficiencies to be a far more valid target of criticism than side issues related to its dissemination.

I appreciate many of Arcade Fire’s songs and some of their work on Reflektor will no doubt become hallmarks of their music.  At the same time, I hope the band shifts gears for their next album and tackles subject matter that expands beyond criticism of alienation and ostracism.  Reflektor suggested a tentative move away that wasn’t enough, and the thematic messiness made these concepts more central than they probably should have been.  They have the talent and skill to make a transcendent pop record rather than a mere description of what’s wrong with the status quo. 

In other words, let’s hope that our next encounter with Arcade Fire sees them focusing on who that mysterious dancing Haitian girl from the “Reflektor” video is and why she matters, rather than the fact that she jumps from screen to screen.  

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One thought on “Failed Connection: On Arcade Fire’s “Reflektor”

  1. This is really some of your most compelling writing I’ve read yet. The imagery in this essay was suburb, with sentences like: ” But the total lack of connective tissue between these ideas and consistently meaningful lyrics to convey them means the concepts are never fully developed.”

    I would agree with you on most of your major lyrical points on Reflektor (cards on the table, I have not listened to the whole album -and am not likely to after your scathing review of it). But to me, the further damnation of this song, more than just its tepid lyrics and lazy philosophical explorations, is the *sound.* Music and poetry have vastly different purposes, and, in my mind, this song is sloppy as both. Never mind the technical execution (which was middle-of-the-road IMHO), impressionistically it is neither memorable, nor particularly clever.

    But the final nail in the coffin is that it doesn’t really compel or command any sort of visceral engagement from its audience. One leaves the song with no impression of “together alone” or remote connection to the themes of the song itself. If you are going to re-tred a topic you’ve explored in previous albums (and that has been explored in hundreds of thousands of other songs/poems/essays/novels/facebook posts) you should at least bring a breath of fresh air *musically* to it (I’m actually more likely to forgive a beautiful song with terrible/boring/repetitive lyrics -I’m looking at you “Suit and Tie”). Reflecktor is none of these things.

    Finally, both the lyrics and sound both seem to lack the passion and *drive* of someone who is truly confronting the issue, rather then pointing it out.

    All of this is to say, this blog post cuts to the heart of the issues with the song, and does so with a clear passion and linguistic grace that I wish I had seen in the song itself.

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