“Stick with the old stuff, Win.” That’s the advice that Butler gets from Carl the roadie (Rainn Wilson) after playing a bloated, belligerent rendition of Funeral cut “Wake Up” during the fictitious Arcade Fire performance in the Reflektor accompaniment film Here Comes The Night Time. Here, Butler is a shadow of his former self, sporting a teal blazer and a toupee, while apologetically cranking out the classics to a dwindling crowd made up of both inelastic fans and skeptical cynics. After a sigh of disgust, Butler mans the microphone again and starts in on Reflektor cut “Normal Person”, unsure of whether or not he even believes himself while singing. On the record, it’s not too much different. “Do you like rock n roll music? Because I don’t know if I do”, Butler croons through the intro. Similar hesitation happened with The Reflektors performance on The Colbert Report. With their plastic faces and painted on smiles, Butler stumbles in, “Um, those monitors are a bit hot… sorry about that. This is our first time playing on TV.” Plastic as they seem, The Reflektors are just as insecure as any band on their first tour across the country.
If you’ve ever seen Arcade Fire play a note of music live, you should know that such insecurity is not characteristic of them. As part of their hype campaign for new album Reflektor, the band has taken on a whole new identity: the Reflektors, a band that just tries to pass the bar of normality and continue pumping out material that their fan base will easily digest. In their secret shows around North America, the Reflektors have demanded formal dress, apologized for jokes, and tried to appease a forced sense of anxiety on the crowd’s part at every chance. So why the insecurity? Why does Arcade Fire feel the need to communicate such imperfection at the peak of their commercial success, coming off of a Grammy winning record and moving towards the most anticipated record of their career (with production from James Murphy to boot)? Well here’s a bit of relief for you: if you think that Arcade Fire have gone off their rockers on this campaign for Reflektor, then you are right where they want you. With Reflektor, Arcade Fire have made the most poignant statement about the current state of the music industry out there, and you’d be wise to listen closely. With Reflektor, a band with a potential long fall from the top jump off the cliff freely, looking back at the climb and singing praises to the struggle, giving us the most relatable and impactful record of their career.
The mythological story of Orpheus and Eurydice is a big one in pop music. There’s no surprise, really, because Orpheus is a musician with a message. A half son of the gods, Orpheus can sway the will of almost anyone he comes into contact with using the power of his lyre and his voice. As the story goes, it’s with these tools that he woos the love of his life, Eurydice, into marrying him. But soon after their marriage, Eurydice is bitten on the heel by a viper and dies, leaving Orpheus in mourning. Overtaken by his grief, and confident in his musicianship, Orpheus descends into the underworld to convince Hades to give his lover back. Typically, this type of thing is out of the question, but swayed by the songs of Orpheus, Hades decides to let Eurydice return on one condition: while ascending from the underworld, Orpheus cannot look back to see if Eurydice is following. Rather, on the long journey upwards, he must trust that she is following closely and that her step will not falter.
Arcade Fire have taken this myth to heart on Reflektor, dedicating both the album cover and two tracks on disc 2 to its telling. But what you may not notice on first listen is that the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice is told from beginning to end of the 85 minute double album. In true double album form, the two halves of the record both play a very separate, very specific role in fleshing out Arcade Fire’s unique vision for this story.
Disc 1 starts with the now ubiquitous single “Reflektor”. The 8 minute disco banger with backup vocals by David Bowie is without a doubt one of the best tracks of the year, but if you take a break from dancing your ass off, there are some really interesting dynamics going on here. The song is soaked in reflective imagery, narrated by a seeker who wants truth but can’t find anything but smoke and mirrors. Everywhere the narrator looks, there is only reflection of separate ideals and higher vision. What’s left to the common man is nothing tangible – just a collection of promises and ideologies with no evidence to sink or swim in the long run. For such an uppity single, it’s a pretty downer message. Arcade Fire don’t follow it with anything cheerier either. “We Exist” and “Flashbulb Eyes” document the plague of celebrity from two different angles. The former paints a picture of disconnected normality, while the second describes the loss of one’s humanity to the carnivore devouring of the camera. “What if the camera really do take your soul?” Win asks. Then on “Here Comes The Nighttime”, the band predicts the apocalypse over a warm, summery calypso beat.
All of this leads up to “Normal Person”, the song that the band made such a painstaking point to dramatize in its first appearances to the public. There’s a reason – disc 1 is all about The Reflektors, our personification of Orpheus in the first half of this epic drama. Who plays Eurydice in this Arcade Fire allegory? That would be the audience. Across the entirety of the first disc, Arcade Fire explore the new territory they find themselves in. With The Suburbs winning a Grammy and with mainstream anticipation for the next record at an all-time high, the band find themselves at an all-too-familiar impasse. When you are on top of the mountain, what’s next? “You Already Know” explores ideas of media precedent, while “Joan of Arc” pretty explicitly draws a metaphor for a band’s relationship with the media and with their audience. “You’re the one that they used to hate, but they like you now. And everything that goes away will be returned somehow. They’re the ones who spit on you because they got no heart, but I’m the one that will follow you, you’re my Joan of Arc.”
All across this disc, Arcade Fire explore the concept of fame, fortune, celebrity, and the ultimate balance between security and trust. “If you shoot, you’d better hit your mark”, Régine sings on “Joan of Arc”. Is it better for a band to do what their audience wants or expects, or should they continue to follow their artistic integrity, trusting that their Eurydice will follow behind them on the upwards climb out of Hades? In this, we see that The Reflektors are not a separate band from Arcade Fire. They aren’t characters that the band are playing to market their record. Rather, they are a chrome-plated darkness hidden in each member, waiting to creep to the surface should insecurity ever overtake any single one of them.
Disc 2 takes a different approach to the Orpheus myth. A second glance at “Here Comes The Night Time” sees a much more somber band. “I hurt myself again, along with all my friends. It feels like it never ends – here comes the night again.” On disc 2, the Reflektors peel back their shiny, reflective skin to reveal the human soul inside every one. “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)” and “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)” together tell us a short love story full of insecurity that gives some insight on the story of the Reflektors. The feeling of not being good enough, or not having enough strength to save the one you love – these are common themes in the way that our love that should be dedicated to others is redirected to feed the ego within ourselves. In the same way, the love that a band shares through its music ends up becoming a self-indulgent mess when insecurity overtakes them in the wake of preordained precedent. But on the second half of the mini story, Win reminds us of a timeless truth. “It seems like a big deal now, but you will get over. When you get over – when you get older – you will remember. He told you he’d wake you up when it was over. Now that it’s over – now that you’re older – you will discover that it’s never over… We’ll figure it out somehow.” After 62 minutes or so, Win and Régine just break your heart here. Tearing back ever layer of the Reflektors puzzle, they reach the core of the issue: human beings are unsure about the future, and that scares the living crap out of them.
As tradition tells it, the myth of Orpheus ends in tragedy. Almost to the end of the journey upwards, Orpheus turns back in a moment of hesitation and breaks his deal with Hades. Instantly, Eurydice is snatched back to the underworld without another chance to return. In a moment of selfishness, Orpheus loses everything he’s fought so hard for, and is doomed to roam the earth alone until death with only his melancholy songs of the past to comfort him.
But really, it isn’t all the fault of a self-absorbed Orpheus, staring at his lyre and expecting every problem to be solved with the pluck of a string. In perhaps the darkest cut we’ve seen from Arcade Fire, “Porno” tackles the misshapen societal standard for human interaction, success, and use of power. Our Orpheus reaches the lowest point only to look back upwards towards Olympus with newfound self-realization. This turn back towards a new dawn is seen in “Afterlife”, the tear-jerking dance anthem that is bound to be a live highlight in Arcade Fire’s future shows. “Can we work it out? Scream and shout, until we work it out, but you say, ‘When love is gone, where does it go?'” In the wake of death and destruction and doom and uncertainty, the band carry the torch forward into the darkness with hope and trust that Eurydice follows. Do Arcade Fire give an answer to the question? Not really. The dark cloud in front of them and in front of their listeners is ever present. But it’s a darkness we face together, until we all work it out.
“Supersymmetry” closes the record with a quantum physics term that will go over most people’s heads without some quick Internet research. It’s a form of element relation only proven indirectly, but the togetherness (shared mass and internal quantum numbers) is one that we can philosophically aspire to. There is a place for the dark and light of the Reflektors and Arcade Fire to be one. There is a place for a band to have faith in their audience and to continue finding commercial success, even in the devastated current state of the music industry. There is a place for Orpheus to trust Eurydice behind and continue to love her throughout.
The record industry is broken. We can get into fights about award shows and music streaming services and all of the like, but at the end of the day, all battles come down to one core concept. What does a band do when the future of their career is uncertain? In the wake of anticipation and expectation for something new, Arcade Fire have given us a thorough dissection of the very idea of this precedent, in order to tell us something about ourselves. Arcade Fire have created a modern masterpiece that gives us a philosophical standpoint by which to weigh our loves without media saturation or the fallacy of normality. On a plane of reflectors, Arcade Fire continue stand tall with a call for honesty and humanity going forward into the uncertain future ahead of us all.
You can hear Arcade Fire perform songs from Reflektor live on KEXP tonight, Monday, October 28, at 7PM PST, from Capitol Studios in Los Angeles.