Arcade Fire: Reflektor – review

Arcade Fire's latest is clearly meant as a great, big statement record – but in fact it's too big, and just not that great
• Interview: Laura Barton meets Arcade Fire

As befits an album on which LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy was called in to give Arcade Fire a sonic overhaul, Reflektor's 75 minutes are filled with strange sounds. There are instruments caked so thickly in reverb and distortion that it becomes hard to tell what they are. The second of its two CDs opens, unmistakably but perplexingly, with the noise of the XDR toneburst that used to appear at the start of pre-recorded cassettes in the 1980s. There is a song called Flashbulb Eyes that resembles a spirited attempt to meld dub reggae with the distinctive chicka-boom rhythms and slapback echo of a 1950s Johnny Cash single, and another that most closely resembles Queen's Crazy Little Thing Called Love being played at the bottom of a well.

But perhaps the most improbable sound of all is the voice of Jonathan Ross, which appears at the start of You Already Know. It's not just that you don't really expect to hear Britain's rhotacistic king of light entertainment cropping up on an album by Canada's Grammy-winning purveyors of apocalyptic gloom. It's that it's in the form of a recording of Ross introducing Arcade Fire on his BBC chat show in 2007: during the subsequent performance, frontman Win Butler smashed a camera with his guitar and stormed off, apparently piqued because he'd had to sit in the green room with all the other guests.

Harking back to a six-year-old TV appearance during which your lead singer had a peevish little tantrum seems a curious thing to do on an album that audibly seeks to draw a line under the past: an Achtung Babyish left turn from the increasingly streamlined and straightforward stadium rock of 2007's Neon Bible and 2010's The Suburbs. The sound Murphy and Arcade Fire have come up is often spectacular – dense, claustrophobic and filled with unpredictable bursts of electronics, the instruments swirling and eddying around relentless disco pulses – although you do rather imagine David Bowie raising a quizzically amused eyebrow when he turned up to perform his brief one-line cameo vocal. There are moments where if it was any more obviously a homage to his 1980 album Scary Monsters, they'd have had to dress up like pierrots, walking along a beach in front of a bulldozer with Steve Strange for company: Normal Person, built around a rhythm that's both thrilling and very much in thrall to that album's title track, even features a passable impersonation of Robert Fripp's distinctive soloing.

And yet the Ross sample is in keeping with one of the album's lyrical themes. The words are often oblique and touch on a range of topics – they most often appear to be dealing in the perennially delightful business of whining about being a hugely successful rock star. This topic seems to be at the root of We Exist, and it's definitely what Flashbulb Eyes is about. As ever, it's hard to avoid the response: if you hate your job so much, mate, why don't you go and do something else? They're crying out for school-crossing patrol wardens in Wolverhampton. You'd look nice in a high-vis jacket, carrying a lollipop.

Reading on mobile? See the video for Reflektor here

Normal Person, meanwhile, opens with a clip of Butler effusively thanking an audience for coming, overlaid with him sighing and asking, heavily, "do you like rock'n'roll music? Because I don't know I do." Once again: have you thought of looking on The subsequent song agonises a little about sneering at its titular subject matter, but there's no getting around the fact that, at root, it's misanthropy disguised as piousness: a rich and famous man peering out at the great unwashed and finding them wanting is as unedifying a sound in 2013 as it was 45 years ago, when the Beatles recorded Piggies.

The other issue with Reflektor is its length: just a shade too long to fit on a single 74-minute CD. Some will doubtless note it would have done had Arcade Fire not bothered with the untitled final track, which consists of the sound of a tape rewinding for over six minutes, overlaid with echo effects, ghostly washes of brass, synthesiser and feedback, and depending on your perspective, is either a deeply pretentious waste of everyone's time, or actually rather hypnotic and pleasurable. Indeed, the real issue with Reflektor's length lies not with its coda, but the fact that only four of its songs last under five minutes. Sometimes they justify their length, packed out as they are with gripping, improbable twists and turns: Joan of Arc's sudden drop from frantically thrashed hardcore punk into treacly, oppressive glitter-stomp; the astonishing Here Comes the Night Time's shift from a breathless canter – not unlike that of France Gall's 1965 Eurovision entry and Arcade Fire favourite Poupée De Cire, Poupée De Son – to a bass-heavy churn. Other times they just don't, particularly on the second CD. Porno's plodding synthpop really outstays its welcome. After Life feels pasty and malnourished compared to the sonic tumult of the first half. It's Never Over has a lovely hookline, but even that palls when the track starts living up to its title.

It's hard not to think that Reflektor would be a great album if Arcade Fire had chosen to scale it down a bit: ruthlessly chop away the lesser songs, think long and hard about the point where excoriating the hollowness of celebrity and success starts to sound petulant and ungracious. But scaling things down is not what Reflektor is about. It wants to be a grandiose statement befitting a band who fill stadiums and win Grammys and debut at No 1: the kind of record people don't just play from beginning to end, but pore over, like the famous double albums of the 60s and 70s. Instead, it sounds like the work of a band that have plenty of good ideas, but increasingly can't tell them from their bad ones – or won't be told.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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