While some have mentioned transformative records by David Bowie, Talking Heads and U2 in discussing Reflektor, a key template for Arcade Fire has always been the Clash's triple-record, Sandinista! Virtually every single release by the Montreal band thus far has contained some sonic allusion to Sandinista!'s daring, polarizing effort to offer a Polaroid snapshot (or Instagram) of everything happening in culture at the time, which meant stepping way out of their British rock band comfort zone and reflecting their travels as explorers. The kicker was that the Clash made the ultimate party record — a brilliant, totally self-aware, genre-eschewing mixtape that rivals The White Album in its dedication to "Yeah, this all fits together" even when it didn't.
The innocent, open-minded ideals of punk were always about galvanizing marginal figures and visions, and despite the external forces and circumstances that have vaulted Arcade Fire into biggest band in the world, they were scrappy rebels first. That impulse leads Win Butler to be a rather remarkable deconstructionist, tackling alienation from all angles by communicating about the sensation and inviting others to join the conversation. The title track drips with notions of what it means to be a social media master, connected to hundreds of thousands of people from the solitary confinement of one's wi-fi connection. "If this is heaven, I don't know what it's for," Butler sings with Régine Chassagne, wondering why so much power at our fingertips has led to so little fulfillment and so much bullshit.
(At the same time, when we used to discuss "virtual reality" in the '90s, we wondered if this concept might lead us to fantasy landscapes and synthetic relationships with people like, say, David Bowie, who magically appears to sing, "Thought you would bring me to the resurrector," to which Butler responds with, "Turns out it was just a Reflektor," almost chastising technology for not living up to its promise, while conjuring realms where no one knows what's real anymore.)
Over the course of Arcade Fire's discography, Butler's critiques have led many to mistake the group's conviction for self-seriousness, even though most of the members are goofballs who have, over the years, managed the scrutiny and pressure they're under in admirable ways. With its flurry of floating voices and sounds (including the album sides divided by the antiquated beeping that used to mark the beginning of cassette tapes), Reflektor has a sense of satire they've seldom revealed on an album.
It feels all the more jovial and celebratory because of how vibrant and upbeat many of the arrangements are. There's some Thriller-era Michael Jackson rhythmic flair propelling "We Exist," which, like so many tunes here, contains an audible instrumental pulse. "Flashbulb Eyes" seems like an obvious statement about our camera phone culture, while "Here Comes the Nighttime" (which lyrically echoes "Reflektor"'s question about what heaven is really for) begins as a percussive torrent inspired by, like so much of this effort, the band's deep connection to Haiti and its culture, before driving into some mid-tempo Clash-meets-'90s-era-U2 hybrid, then circling back around to the horns-and-drums carnival that first greeted us.
If Reflektor does mark the first time the group have felt comfortable letting their sense of humour and irony emerge on a proper release, it's tempting to suggest that the beat-oriented framework of the record's first half (which, like much of it, was overseen by LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy) has opened them up to having more fun. Where Sandinista! captured part of the bustle of NYC street culture in 1980, Reflektor represents internet commotion and globalization, where most notable happenings are instantaneously amplified. "Normal Person" is Arcade Fire at their most meta, tweaking the conventions of a band setting up to play a show, how the ritual of such a thing is more ubiquitous than ever, and how the delineation between merit-driven fame and unintentional celebrity is so fine right now.
The relatively measured second half almost serves as a stoic reflection of the preceding party. "Here Comes the Night Time II" is filled with all the dread its bombastic predecessor lacked. The gear is shifted down to low for "Awful Sound (Oh, Eurydice)" and "It's Never Over (Oh, Orpheus)," and, as great as these songs are, it feels a bit like a necessary move for a "serious" band to make after so brazenly letting their hair down.
Comedy must always be measured by earnestness in rock's elite class and it's a deliberate deflection. At the same time, in the context of one single record shooting for the moon, all of this music lives together in a complementary zone. Life is sombre and shitty, joyous and incredible. Reflektor goes after this eternal, existential tension in masterful strokes and is a significant musical contribution by Arcade Fire, who continue to find ways to tap into universal expressions while making music that's refreshingly topical, infectious and completely their own.