When James Murphy pulled the plug on his group LCD Soundsystem in 2011, one of the reasons he cited was the time constraints placed on him as both a producer and frontman of a band.
“I’ve been writing lists of things I need to do that I’ve not been able to do because I’ve been on tour or making a record for the last eight years,” Murphy said. He told an anecdote about scheduling conflicts preventing him from producing not one but two Arcade Fire albums, what turned out to be “Neon Bible” and “The Suburbs,” one of the Grammy’s most unexpected winners of the Album of the Year award.
“I took an extra year off but so did they, so when it was time to make [the new LCD Soundsystem] record, they were making theirs,” Murphy lamented.
It’s hard to say if the (double) album that he did finally end up producing for Arcade Fire feels like it was worth the wait. The title track off “Reflektor” — which, as endless banner ads have told you for the last month, is out today — sounds exactly like what you imagined it would; sprawling and anthemic yet danceable and arch (even when David Bowie himself shows up for a brief cameo, Win Butler is not impressed). It’s everything fans of both groups hoped it would be, and then some.
Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, “Reflektor” is the best song on the album, which taken as a whole might even be deemed a faint disappointment. A good portion of that argument is built on the burden of past accomplishment. James Murphy and Arcade Fire have not only released a handful of classics between them, their sound individually continues to cast shadows across the indie music landscape. Both critical and commercial expectations have been set a little too high for “Reflektor.”
Yet that’s not it entirely. 13 songs spread over two-discs and 76 minutes is an awkward way of presenting your music and there’s a lot that feels self-indulgent (by comparison, “The Suburbs” was 16 tracks). “You Already Know” is a middle-of-the-road rocker by Arcade Fire standards, “Porno” is both heavy-handed and clumsy with it’s subject matter, and the five minutes of ambient sound that finishes album-closer “Supersymmetry” could be excised entirely.
However, trimming an album of it’s flaws is compulsory in the digital music era and when you do that, “Reflektor” is left with four or five incredible songs and several other good ones. In addition to the title track, “It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus)” pulses with an energy and thick back-end that’s bears Murphy’s prints and suits the band well. “Flashbulb Eyes,” with it’s vaguely reggae bassline and vibraphone solo, conjures memories of the more exotic corners of Talking Heads discography. And “Here Comes the Night Time” melts electronic and Haitian accents together in the band’s sweetest and most cheerful song since, well, “Haiti.”
Certain music critics/ trolls have pointed out the lack of subtlety in Arcade Fire’s music and Win Butler’s lyrics in particular. But what Butler and Murphy have in common is their remarkable ability to clearly and unambiguously articulate contemporary anxieties using both humor and sincerity. When Butler sings “Afterlife/ My God what an awful word,” he’s sort of being funny and he’s sort of being honest, but he’s not just being cheeky; the song is actually about the afterlife. And when, on the title track, he sings, “We’re so connected, but are we even friends,” he taps into one of the more common existential conundrums of the Facebook-era.
Ultimately, while “Reflektor” isn’t the masterpiece it’s first single had us dreaming of, it is an affirmation that both Arcade Fire and James Murphy are among the few artists in contemporary music with the vision and capacity to determine its legacy.
Looking back, I doubt that we’ll see it as just a reflector.