The Reflektors,' side project and/or in-joke. There was that first single, an exciting deviation from the band's normative sound that to this day still feels at least slightly under-cooked. And there was their star-crossed showing on the season premiere of Saturday Night Live, a performance miserably botched by the venue's technical and sonic short-comings that nevertheless emitted some weird vibes from the band themselves. None of it exactly screamed out-right failure, but meager success isn't exactly what we come back to Arcade Fire for, now is it? No one makes an event out of their every move quite like the Canadian wunderkinds, and, after winning the Album of the Year Grammy in early 2011, stowing away for 3-plus years, enlisting production assistance from LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy, and recording the follow-up in an abandoned Jamaican castle, you'd be forgiven for expecting the world out of Reflektor.
The single aspect of Reflektor's pre-release buzz that had me most excited is, to these ears, the disc's largest detriment; the involvement of Mr. Murphy. The coupling was awfully tasty on paper, a big-band veteran pairing with a sizable roster who consistently harbors the loftiest ambitions in the North American musical landscape. But the things that have always made Murphy's LCD tracks so special (danceable, bass-driven grooves, crisp sounds, repetition, and sass) come at such immediate contrast with Arcade Fire's strengths (guitar-led anthems, fearless earnestness, orchestral sounds, and general BIGNESS) that one wonders how we all didn't see this one coming. Hype Starts Here has a long history of stated love and embarrassing bias in favor of both of these artists, but I also love both cheese and sour candy, too. Not everything mixes.
Reflektor's 70-minute runtime is divided between two discs, and the break is clear as day. The first, which opens with the aforementioned Reflektor, is the more musically up-front edition, employing simple grooves, and marching along with minimal deviation. While LCD often did this to tremendous effect, Arcade Fire is used to finding its power from guitars and vocals, not the rhythm section from which Murphy and co. made their living. We Exist and Joan of Arc just don't have the bass-and-drums muscle to remain engaging through-out their too-long runtimes, while We Already Know and Normal Person (especially) breath more fire in theory than in practice. While one can't really blame their miss-guided punk ambitions on Murphy (after all, did he have anything to do with Month of May?), it's frustrating to hear them play against their strengths to such a degree.
Disc Two is much less rocky (pun intended), though the allegedly epic pairing of Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice) and It's Never Over (Oh Orpheus) falls mind-numbingly short of The Suburbs' Half Light double-header, not to mention Funeral's Neighborhood suite. That said, Afterlife is yet another treasure from the band's catalogue, as almost-tacky as all of their best songs, this time unveiled in lush, billowy colors. Same goes for closer Supersymmetry, whose glowing outro might just be the album's highlight. Disappointing as Reflektor's whole may be, dismissing it as an out-and-out disaster would be disingenuous. Flashbulb Eyes deserves credit for propping-up the first act, as do Reflektor and Here Comes the Night Time, though both are more enjoyable in concept than in practice. Listenable as it may be, Arcade Fire's newest is something we've never heard from these guys before: A half-baked concept in need of some extra time behind the scenes.