Remain in Lite! Arcade Fire’s Botched Hip Replacement

reflektor

James Murphy once famously claimed that he was losing his edge “to the kids from France.” With nothing left to prove (his darling brainchild LCD Soundsystem now relegated to the dustbin of history; DFA Records no longer a viable tastemaker in the independent music scene it once was in the early aughts), Murphy’s edge will soon accept its inexorable kismet, and file chapter seven. The kids that Murphy and company have brought over to the dance music scene from the world of indie rock are now looking elsewhere, as their productions become increasingly similar, and noticeably saccharine. Everyone is too busy tinkering irreverently with dance-punk and hints of everything between this side of the Belleville Three and French touch, and in the process are attempting to create a new strand of post-dance-punk electro music that is as addictive as it is carefree. Edits, cuts, splices, dips, returns, and more splices; it’s all about dynamics, volume, destroying speakers and moving your feet. In a feeble attempt to recoup his aforementioned depleting edge, Murphy has commingled with venerable Canadian rockers Arcade Fire on Reflektor—the band’s fourth full length studio album—in a last ditch effort (by both parties) to elevate their message(s) about shared community, power of timeless music and prospects of self-identity/preservation through marriage of the two. All of it: heady naval-gazing, the album. A botched hip replacement.

It is becoming clearer, that with each decade’s passing, we all sure do miss the 1970s. Even if you didn’t necessarily live in it. The 1980s, the ones born in the hinterlands, missed the ’70s. The 1990s, possibly the biggest offenders of ’70s revival to date, missed the ’70s. But specifically, each decade misses the mythos and mystique that encapsulated the ’70s. What we miss is the war zone that was the catalyst for boundless creativity—where punk and disco were born kicking and screaming—a place covered in leather and glitter and glory. So, perhaps whilst we play out our personal copies of Frampton Comes Alive, it’s worth pondering rhetorically: Why, in the context of popular music, does this passion for historical rebellion so often translate into a sort of time-warped generic straitjacket? And why does said straitjacket feel so right? The ’70s’ (disco, in particular) romantic past is over, it died in Comiskey Park on an ill-fated summer night in 1979 (enthusiastically referred to as “Disco Demolition Night”). That night marked forward momentum for all of music and pop culture, an analogy for the refusal to look back on, and be marred by, stagnation. It was the first time that the listener effectively decided to rattle the status quo, and collectively voice their malaise over popular music as they knew it. The listener was no longer merely a consumer for which multimillion dollar companies and record labels can push their agenda onto, but a tangible source for what’s hot and what’s not.

And yet, over thirty years later—with 2013 having already given us the lagniappe of Random Access Memories, Daft Punk’s nostalgia soaked new album (along with their chart-topping lead single “Get Lucky”) as well as hit songs like Robin Thicke’s sexual sleaze “Blurred Lines”, Bruno Mars’ “Treasure”, and Justin Timberlake’s “Take Back the Night”—it’s evident: the ’70s, disco and more importantly, nostalgia in music, isn’t going anywhere. Take Random Access Memories for example, where Daft Punk position themselves as historically minded robots who know all too well just how hard it is to be human. Serving as a tribute to the music they grew up listening to as children, here they seem to be most interested in the implications of curating what has previously existed, and only almost by accident renewing it. It’s not that their work sounds dated, or they are like bluegrass purists, it’s a mark of their consummate skill that they do not sound dated while working the historical factor. Despite whatever your opinion is on the album as a whole (a soulless disco shuffle, the sonic equivalent of a first grader imitating a chicken), the duo of lifelong friends have gracefully managed to bring their personal sentimentality for passé genres of yesteryear (disco, funk, soft rock) to the headphones generation. For every person who can’t stand Random Access Memories because of nostalgia, there will now be younger fans who hear it, love it, and then seek out the bands they’re paying homage to. It’s a beautiful cycle.

Next time you listen to a piece of music and scoff because you already love certain artistes who allegedly did that style of music first, ask yourself: Can nostalgia actually be harmful? And to whom, exactly? False nostalgia, certainly. But genuine nostalgia (the real, profound longing for and love of things from our past) doesn’t stem from a willful withdrawal from the present day (although it can certainly be accompanied by that sort of thing). On the contrary, it’s actually based on something in our experience that is real. It’s not always permanent, but while it exists it doesn’t somehow trick us into overvaluing music. That music really is embedded in our personal experiences better than just about anything that doesn’t have that layer of experience to enhance it. And as long as we’re all giving into nostalgia—since we can’t fight it anyway—maybe we should try working with it. It’s not that all the questions raised by nostalgia aren’t worthy of discussion. But instead of acting as if we can somehow get outside of our experience (which includes nostalgia) in order to think and talk about it, we should start accepting that we exist within that experience, and that any discussion has to acknowledge that.

In the curious case of electronic based music, the problem with this incongruous revival culture we’ve all been thrusted into without notice (and the post- prefix we’ve become oh so comfortably accustomed to), is not so much the crippling yearning that comes with it but rather its inherently effortless way of generating a creative energy flow—allowing itself to be so self-sustaining, successively avoiding being just another casualty to the digital age’s ever expanding and rapidly accelerating chasm. And there is never a shortage of artists who attempt to fuse rock and pop styles, and structures, with electronic ones; merely drawing on two or three sets of clichés instead of just one. And with Reflektor now tacked onto their live set, Arcade Fire can’t possibly escape that trap because they’ve unwittingly lumped themselves as something of a fusion band; not just a crew of rowdy geeks who play twenty first century century pop music with synthesizers and a sense of humor (here’s lookin’ at you, Hot Chip). So instead of surprising us with a collection of bumpy, whimsical pop, they’ve possibly found a way to attain the dubious cachet of, say, the Killers. After all, one day these awkward twentieth century contraptions we’ve come to know as “albums” might just become lost to history: nothing more than inexplicable track tags in your song folder, neatly sorted by artist or genre. If that’s the case, well, this one is ambiguously categorized in the former, and disproportionately represented in the latter.

Arcade Fire’s stab at the mirrorball splendor of the ’70s, while admirable, falls somewhere between being largely insincere and austere; Reflektor’s aesthetic is sumptuous and bold but sadly the music is mostly just unadventurous and flaccid. From the extravagantly showy presentation of their cryptic guerrilla-style viral campaign, promotional live performances, playing dress-up, and the eponymous music video leading up to the release of the album, one would have asserted Arcade Fire as torchbearers for the dawning of a new age in music. And why wouldn’t we? Their previous three albums have all brought on such frothy critical acclamation, and transcendent mainstream success, that the standard at which we hold these seven Canadians should be nothing less than always capable of potential watershed moments in contemporary music. Unfortunately, however, Reflektor doesn’t have the immediacy or catharsis of Funeral nor the intensity of Neon Bible. It doesn’t even have The Suburbs’ dreadful, real world miasma to draw the listener closer—despite bandleader Win Butler claiming inspiration from a trip to Haiti that opened him up to a vast amount of culture and influence he hadn’t been exposed to before which was “really life-changing”.

Predominantly educated by genre luminaries Talking Heads, Blondie and David Bowie (making a guest vocal appearance on the titular “Reflektor”), and owing debt to the rock reggae stride of The Clash and Achtung Baby-era U2, Refkletor eschews the occasionally inexpressive meddling that marred the work of many of the scene’s forebears. Indeed, by necessity, Butler’s droning voice is in full swing throughout the album—overcompensating for its well-defined limitations with a compartmentalized sense of expression that makes even the slightest of melodies sound unerringly profound—even in light of some highly questionable lyricism that nevertheless adheres mostly to his previous songwriting. More excitingly, the balance of power is distributed equally here like never before on more vocal-intensive tracks the band has previously produced. The wash of heavenly synth tones and thick digital slabs that Arcade Fire and co. bring to the fold ultimately make songs like “Supersymmetry” the highlights that they are. This is never more apparent than on the fantastic “Afterlife”, where Butler’s deadpan cooing is underscored by a mountain of synthesized pulses and gently enormous strings that make way for a skittering snare drum, thunderous guitar, and manipulated vocal flutters—all underneath the ubiquitous bass thump that is all but essential for these (few) songs that utilize it.

Furthermore, the only other time Reflektor truly ascends beyond indie rock’s rigid structure and dated sound is when it smartly employs that vital 1970s in-your-face bravado, and atomized individualism that made the Me decade so high-octane and thrilling to begin with (ultimately resulting in unified statement-making albums). Songs like “Joan of Arc” and “Normal Person” have a certain kitschy Bruce Springsteen Born to Run chest-beating swagger to them that’s both mighty impressive and enjoyable—giving Arcade Fire a much needed triumphant, anthemic quality to their music they’ve been sorely lacking since the Funeral days. Reflektor is at its best when the band allows this musical miscegenation to take hold; rediscovering the pleasure of rhythm and embracing a syncopated, one-note pattern, played on any number of instruments. This is, perhaps by default, the highlight of Reflektor; putting a band naturally born to lumber awkwardly on display with a style of music (dancey, upbeat, groovy, sexy, fun, etc.) that wasn’t before. But, sadly, the old Arcade Fire with its antiquated, mawkish ways still has its foot in the door, and will simply not go away. In a callous move, Arcade Fire ultimately pulls the rug from under your dancing feet—contumaciously stripping the skyline of its bright, glowing neon lights—leaving it moonless and plain. Where they were seducing the listener on some of the aforementioned songs, they also aim to incoherently blabber their lithium-immune anxieties to The Suburbs parents through a glass window at a state hospital. Nobody wants to hear that shit anymore, guys.

The Talking Heads comparison isn’t just arbitrarily based on the ’70s iconoclast influences mentioned earlier either, as Arcade Fire—like Talking Heads on Remain in Light before them—looked beyond their confined homeland for inspiration. The world music elements of Remain in Light, which experiments with African polyrhythm, was built on necessity, not privilege. The husband and wife team of Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth decided to take a long vacation to the Caribbean after potentially leaving the band—where they became heavily involved in Haitian Voodoo religious ceremonies—and subsequently practiced with several types of native percussion instruments. The band would go on to record their opus Remain in Light in the Bahamas, where they’d further experiment with the communal African way of making music (in which individual parts mesh as polyrhythms to create a cohesive whole). For Arcade Fire, the husband and wife team of Win Butler and Régine Chassagne similarly took a trip to Haiti to visit Chassagne’s family. The band would begin incorporating Jamaican influences, and specifically Haiti’s rara music (there are some elements of bongo drums throughout Reflektor). If we think of “world music”—when appropriated by presumably well-intention but clueless white musicians—as something like Paul Simon’s Graceland or solo-era Sting (the former always seemed to be fascinated with the prettiness of it all), and aural wallpaper meant to conjure up a distant land then Talking Heads’ Remain in Light seems to be a direct antithesis while Reflektor falls somewhere between Graceland and Sting.

And though we would want to share with Arcade Fire our romanticization over the troubled heroes of so many Greek tragedies, we can’t help but find ourselves feeling quite let down with the languorous nature of the stories the band churns out on Reflektor. Notwithstanding the aforementioned praise for “Afterlife” as a splendidly composed track, instrumentally, the lyrics—which tell the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice—sadly don’t play up any of its many strengths. The lyric music video, consisting entirely of scenes from Marcel Camus 1959 film Black Orpheus (superimposed with the song’s lyrics) is apt not only in that the film is an adaptation of the Greek legend, but in that it is set in the modern, world context of a favela in Rio de Janeiro during Carnaval. Who would’a thunk it?! Unfortunately, however, all of this becomes moot, as it ultimately feels like a cop-out largely because the lyrics don’t fit (or hit). This is classic Arcade Fire clumsiness; a gifted band unable to shake the archaic lyrics that have plagued much of their work. It’s a sweet yet simple story, and Arcade Fire’s vague lyrics never rise above the level of foggy, hopeful clichés that have been placed in a fitting order. “Afterlife, I think I saw what happens next/ It was just a glimpse of you, like looking through a window/ Or a shallow sea”, sings Win Butler. But we don’t know why. Meh, maybe if I just shut up and dance, then my feet and ass won’t mind a bit. Gotcha, guys.

Even before you listen to the music, Orpheus and Eurydice are at the center of Reflektor, quite literally. A picture of Auguste Rodin’s sculpture of the two is slapped on the cover of the album. This theme and aesthetic choice adopted (and adapted) by Arcade Fire for the album is directly in line with another nu- (post-?) disco outfit, Hercules and Love Affair, who have made the most of the gay Greek tale of Hercules’ heartbreaking relationship with young Hylas as their modus operandi. But unlike Arcade Fire, Hercules and Love Affair’s choices all seamlessly reflect the notion of vulnerability and authenticity: Hercules was the strongest man at the mercy of his emotion. Lyrically, the band tends to focus on “coming to terms with your identity as marginalized people”. Working on their lush 2008 self-titled debut, Hercules and Love Affair recruited Tim Goldsworthy, cofounder of DFA Records, to produce the album. Five years later and Goldsworthy’s DFA coconspirator James Murphy is working on Arcade Fire’s Reflektor. But where Hercules and Love Affair’s raison d’être is justified as a whole (complete package that feel satisfying to listen to), while Reflektor is jarring with too many clashing ideas. A double album clocking in at well over an hour, it’s not difficult to see and hear why.

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Freelance writer based out of NYC with a focus in pop culture, music and film.