The very things that keep Arcade Fire’s fourth album, Reflektor, from unmitigated success are the things that eventually make it compelling: What’s a band to do when its ambitious cracks and deliberate detours both drag it down and push it forward? Apparently the answer is to grab every idea and follow the muse wherever it goes—Haiti and beyond—and let past triumphs remain in the past. That tactic makes the first spins of Reflektor potentially deadly for the impatient: At first only its faults—and more importantly, its departures—stand out: It feels dull, overlong, indulgent, and detached.
Not all of those impressions go away after quality reflection time. At 86 minutes spread over 14 songs (counting the hidden pre-album bonus track), Reflektor is undoubtedly overlong. But it comes as no surprise that a band as obsessed with its own presentation—visual, lyrical, packaging, video, even clothing—would take a concept to its logical extreme. A full 16 minutes of the album’stime is spent insisting on its theme: The hidden track—which, granted, must be sought out—and the lengthy coda on album-closer “Supersymmetry” reflect the tone of the Reflektor’s songs, offering backward snippets buffeted by ambient weirdness.
Strangely, though, it’s not those bookends that make the dance-friendly, layered albumdrag, nor is it the tendency to take a four-minute idea and play it for seven. It’s the stabs at being straightforward that push Reflektor from its best path, particularly the blues-rocking, on-the-nose “Normal Person” and its neighbor, “You Already Know,” whose dub influences are better served elsewhere on the record. They both seem out of place on a set whose purpose seems to be outer-edge exploration of the band’s very core.
This leaves a pack of songs that mostly push the six-minute mark, feature a cameo from a glam-rock legend and production by a dance-rock luminary, heavily reference Greek mythology, dabble in musical culture from a Third World country, and could be seen, in the right light, as jammy. And yet… They eventually feel exactly right, as if there were actually no other direction for Arcade Fire to head than parts unknown. (For as excellent as The Suburbs could be, it didn’t require a sequel.)
The title track sets the tone, making up for its detached cool with a believable groove—something it would’ve been smart to bet against this band being able to pull off. It also welcomes David Bowie, though very briefly, as if to set itself comfortably among the greats. The disco squalls are jarring and the LCD Soundsystem influence almost ridiculously overt, but “Reflektor”—in spite of a lyrical insistence to the contrary—somehow takes these old parts and makes something novel. “We Exist” finds an entirely different type of slinky groove, one that meets in the fertile middle between ’80s pop and this year’s Daft Punk release. It utilizes a trick that Reflektor goes back to a couple of times, layering ideas and sounds until a song feels overloaded, then revealing one more gorgeous or weird (or gorgeously weird) idea to lock everything together. Vintage synths and a reggae bass line save “Flashbulb Eyes,” which appears to be about the difficulties of fame (ugh), by mixing them up in a Haitian stew. It shouldn’t work, but it does.
Maybe that’s the defining trait of Reflektor: improbability. Here’s a band that got famous by being massively earnest—remember those Funeral sing-alongs, the band wandering the crowd in farm-guy clothes, finding a beautiful sense of community with its audience?—that has followed its muse to a place that jettisons a lot of what made people love it. But listen closely enough to Reflektor—and give it the patience that clearly went into its recording—and that old Arcade Fire burns. It’s just a different kind of flame.