Arcade Fire – Reflektor
-By Kyle Rainville
As time goes by, more and more we find ourselves at a loss for a band to represent our times, our culture, our feelings. Radiohead held the flag in the late ’90s to early 2000s, Oasis did it for the Brits in the mid ’90s, Nirvana for the US in the early ’90s, Guns N’ Roses in the late ’80s, but what about now? What group can represent our culture now?
In 2010, Arcade Fire proved they were up to the task with their crossover sensation and grammy-award winning album, The Suburbs. Focusing on dehumanization through technology, the sporadic nature of urbanization, wistful remembrances of innocent youth, and the drowning of human emotion, Arcade Fire created an album that was as easy to relate to as it was enjoyable. As their album won awards and won hearts, Arcade Fire probably realized the burden that came with it. That is of course, the burden of expectation, the flag of representation being handed over. All eyes were on Arcade Fire as they developed and finally released their successor to their last album; Reflektor.
Oddly enough, Arcade Fire’s ambitions were a bit too much for one disc here. Stretching around 85 minutes, this album had to pressed on two discs. The cover art is actually very telling about this album. If you didn’t know, it’s a sculpture by Auguste Rodin depicting the Greek figures of Eurydice and Orpheus. So the story goes that Orpheus, an incredibly talented musician, had to go straight into Hell to save the woman of his dreams. Satan agreed to let her go on one condition: Orpheus had to lead her out with his music and he could NOT look back at her, if he did, all hope was lost. As they reached the surface coming out of Hell, Orpheus started to think that Satan had deceived him. He looked back at Eurydice and this mistake caused him to lose her forever.
Hell closed up and formed the thin line between life and death that is such a recurring theme on this album. The quaint divider between life and death can be characterized as a glass or reflecting mirror. The state of “life” isn’t that far off from the state of “death”. As our main character (Orpheus) ‘reflects’ on what happened, Eurydice still lives in his mind. Although the line is thin, it’s still a painful distance to experience between loved ones. As Win Butler sings in the beautiful album closer, Supersymmetry:
I know you’re living in my mind
But it’s not the same as being alive
Fittingly enough, Win Butler plays the character of Orpheus and Regine plays the role of Eurydice. Keep that in mind because it’s quite important…
There are still themes of technology ridding us of our emotions. On the title track, Reflektor, Win Butler uses the seven plus minute runtime as a meditation on the ravaging of social connections and love due to technologies rampant and overbearing existence. It’s really not unlike “We Used to Wait” from their previous album.
Now, the signals we send, are deflected again
We’re still connected, but are we even friends?
We fell in love when I was nineteen
And I was staring at a screen
Technologies uses, especially in terms of social networking, are incredibly useful. They make almost everything quicker, easier, and more efficient, but at what cost? Are the connections you make online the same as the ones you make in real life?
Thought you would bring me to the resurrector
Turns out it was just a Reflektor (It’s just a Reflektor)
Technology was once viewed as the savior and the end-all-be-all of modern communication. In present times though, we more often are reminded of the grim effects of the constant use of it. The reflection of all of our ideas and feelings on a computer is just intelligently arranged binary code. If this is the case, how ridiculous is to think that robots that run on such code could be just as human and just as loving as we supposedly are?
If this is heaven
I need something more
Fittingly enough though, Win Butler makes the bold proclamation that this is not enough for him. If social networking and technology are the present and things are just going to get more “convenient” as times pass, he can’t deal with that. He needs something more in his life. True feeling, true love.
After this bold intro track, we get a 10 minute instrumental that includes synthesizers, drums, and bongos. It’s almost like Arcade Fire are trying to make this album their Kid A after their successful OK Computer. If you think about it like that, this instrumental and the one at the end feel more fitting. The melody isn’t incredibly strong on these tracks but that’s not the reason they exist. They exist to separate the songs and their stories. The first track is more of an introduction to the broad story told on this ambitious work. Chronologically, this is the final song on the album. It’s also the only song told from the present. Every other song on here is reminiscence and flashbacks. As I’ve said before this album is the story of a man who has lost his woman. The recurring metaphor being Orpheus and Eurydice. Notice some of the lines from the first track:
Will I see you on the other side? (Just a Reflektor)
We all got things to hide (Just a Reflektor)
These lines foreshadow the religious forays and contemplations that will be fairly constant throughout this work. The only reason they are so important in context of this album is because Orpheus wants to know if he’ll see Eurydice after he dies. Also notice:
Alright, let’s go back
Our song escapes, on little silver discs
Our love is plastic, we’ll break it to bits
I want to break free, but will they break me?
Down, down, down, don’t mess around
Our narrator is signaling the fact that he’s about to take us back into the past. He’s going to tell us his story. Also breaking the fourth wall, Win recognizes that they release his music (“love”) on compact discs, so he plans to break the plastic (which here can symbolize corruption and wrong-doing, but at the same time it symbolizes the love of Orpheus/Eurydice. Each song here can be connected to their story and their love but I’m going to analyze them more directly) and go deeper into what inspires him to release his music.
The second song, We Exist, is the proper introduction to the love of Orpheus/Eurydice. With a vibrant bass line that sounds oddly similar to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” (not that that’s a bad thing), Arcade Fire make a meaningful statement about….well….about something:
Daddy it’s true, I’m different from you
But tell me why they treat me like this?
You turn away, what could I say
Not the first betrayed by a kiss
Daddy told him to wait
Mother, I’m so scared
But will you watch us drown?
You know that they will
This song could be read as a gay rights statement or maybe even a statement about poor third world countries like Haiti. Whatever way you pin it, the song is powerful in it’s resigned sighs, stomping bass-line and distant tambourines. Perhaps the catalyst of Orpheus’ love was awkward for him and his parents?
One of the shorter tracks on the album, Flashbulb Eyes is quick and to the point. Like Nirvana’s “Rape Me”, this song focuses on the death of freedom and “soul” due to constant paparazzi coverage wherever you go. You can never seem to escape, it’s almost as if you are being watched all of the time. The song itself is shorter and simpler than most of the tracks on this album, but that also adds to some of its charm.
Here Comes the Night Time begins uncomfortably frantic, but it slows down quickly. Focusing on Win and Regine’s experience in Port-au-Prince. Most of the city lacks electricity, so the experience of seeing everyone hustle and bustle their way home influenced both of them. The song is also a contemplation on religion and its missionaries.
The missionaries tell us we will be left behind
Been left behind a thousand times, a thousand times
If you want to be righteous, if you want to be righteous
Get in line, here comes the night time
The piano refrain in this song is breathtakingly beautiful. Hopping along mostly at a middle pace, this song is one that could easily be danced to. Although it meditates on religion, it reaches no real conclusion, other than looking inside to find what truly matters to you:
When you look in the sky, just try looking inside
God knows what you might find
Here comes the night time
Normal Person seems like a likely single being a fairly fast paced rocker. The song contemplates what constitutes normalcy and reaches the end idea that our perception of normal today is one who has no qualms about crushing others, hording wealth, and taking shortcuts to get his way. Selfishness and cruelty have become the established norm in our culture:
Take their tea at two, all the normal people, they do
They burned the jungle down, while you were sleeping it grew
You dream in English now, in proper English
Look how you’re just the same as me
You Already Know feels like a direct statement. Almost a direct lyrical re-treading of “We Used to Wait”, this song speaks on how fast life goes by us all. You know that saying about sniffing the roses? Yeah. Well sonically, it’s interesting enough. The guitar strumming is nice and the bass is deep. It works better when thought of as simply a mood-piece, sonic ear candy if you will:
Sometimes they move so fast
Never stop to ask, it’s already passed
Arcade Fire decide to finish off disc 1 with a love song about loyalty, longing, and regret. Now although Joan of Arc is a love song, it’s still a potent rocker. In context, this song works much better than say “Month of May”. Win decries all the “fake” people going after the girl of his dreams. Adding Regine to this chorus was brilliant. (“Jeane D’arc, ah ooh!”) Assuming that this “Joan of Arc” that our narrator is referring to is the same person as Eurydice, that’s a telling comparison that I’ll expand upon a little later.
Arcade Fire begins the second disc with a second part to one of their songs on their first disc. While “Here Comes the Night Time” dealt with religion from a skeptical and distant point of view, Here Comes the Night Time II sounds tortured and longing for something to believe in. Alluding to Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt”, Arcade Fire presents religion with another point of view. When you have nothing else to believe in and your life is in shambles, what do you turn to?:
Well, I hurt myself again
Alone with all my friends
Feels like it never ends
Here comes the night again
Narrating as Orpheus, Awful Sound finds Win Butler reminiscing on the love story between his character and that of Eurydice. Presumably, this love interest was an unlikely one that perhaps wasn’t meant to be.
I was so disappointed you didn’t want me
Oh, how could it be, Eurydice?
I was standing beside you by a frozen sea
Will you ever get free?
Our narrator wants to be there for this girl and help her escape. (I’m assuming that Eurydice is probably in some sort of abusive relationship with either a boyfriend or maybe even member[s] of her family) This song actually sounds very Radiohead-esque, longing to make someone pay for what they’ve done. The percussion and synth build is astonishingly beautiful. You can also hear bits of string throughout the song. This didn’t initially click but after repeated listens, this song is obviously a grower. Sadly enough, it seems like the narrator loses the girl by the end of the song:
We know there’s a price to pay for love in a reflective age
I met you up upon a stage, our love in a reflective age
Oh no, now you’re gone
Okay, rewind! We now get It’s Never Over, which finds Regine narrating as Eurydice from her point of view. It’s basically the same situation as the last song except from a different standpoint. The guitar riff is catchy and vibrant and the refrains’ distance is simply ethereal. Although an admittance at a failure or a regret, it also reassures the listener that failure is a growing experience. Sometimes the memories and lessons are worth more than the costs. The Greek imagery just makes it all that more appealing:
We stood beside
A frozen sea
I saw you out
In front of me
A hollow moon
Oh Orpheus, Eurydice
Its over too soon
I was initially misled by the title of Porno, but after hearing it, it makes more sense. Sonically, it sounds sort of like a more laid-back version of Nine Inch Nails, as it has creeping and almost malicious sounding synthesizers that help build the track. It almost sounds like it has people snapping their fingers in the background too. Lyrically, it’s a statement about the female sexuality and the immaturity of oh-so many men today. While the song views the usual man’s intentions as selfish and juvenile, it views the female as sacred. Our narrator isn’t like most men and he reassures the ladies that he understands. Win sings wonderfully on this song and there is a noticeable lack of distortion on his vocals here, and I think that’s for the better:
They don’t know what I know
It’s so little that we know
But the cup it overflows
Little boys with their porno
This is their world, where can we go?
Makes me feel like something’s wrong with me
Possibly Arcade Fire’s catchiest single ever, Afterlife builds tension and releases it with refined cadence towards melody and chorus. Taking into consideration both chapters of Here Comes the Nighttime, he now tries to come to the final conclusion:
When love is gone
Where does it go?
And where do we go?
Screaming and shouting, our narrator finally decides that it seems illogical that all of these great things that we experience as humans go nowhere after our physical life is over. Perhaps there is an afterlife. But why is this theme/question so important to our narrator?
Enter Supersymmetry. Not to derail my review, but supersymmetry is an idea in particle physics that relates two types of particles: bosons and fermions. (which have a half-integer spin) Although they are similar, the superpartner particles are not the same. So why is this important? Well, this song finds our narrator longing the loss of the love of his life. This is presumably the same person that he’s been longing for almost solely since “Joan of Arc”. (the person who was played by Regine in “It’s Never Over”) In fact, all of this album focuses on this love interest in different ways, whether it be through religion, technology, social issues, or even particle physics. Although each song can be read out of context, they develop new meaning when looked at as part of this whole album. “Flashbulb Eyes” for instance becomes a statement on the onlooking judgement from all others when pursuing a new relationship rather than a simple message of paparazzi interference.
Now bear with me here, I’m going to sort of mull over what I think may have happened to this girl (Eurydice). Okay, so I’m pretty sure we can assume she is dead. Our narrator (Orpheus) has been longing for her for about half of this album. Constant meditations on religion eventually find us with Orpheus screaming and shouting convincing himself there IS an afterlife, for the sole reason that maybe he has a vein hope of meeting with Eurydice again.
When he calls this girl “Joan of Arc” in the last song of disc 1, that brings another dimension to her story. Although there have been constant references of escape from “them”, “they” and “boys”, we never really know who or what Eurydice is trying to escape from. If you didn’t know, Joan of Arc was a young girl from France who led the French army in many battles and victories in the Hundred Year War. She claimed as a young’n that God spoke to her and told her to do these things but it’s widely known now that she was actually a schizophrenic. She was highly religious and dedicated in her studies. Eventually though, she was captured by the English and put on trial for a multitude of things. It’s widely believed that she was raped in prison and that’s the reason that she wore male attire. Ignoring this, the Catholic Church that she was so dedicated to credited the “voices” she heard and the male clothes she wore as signs of heresy. She was burned alive by the Church for this act.
Now, time to connect! I think that perhaps the girl our narrator is so infatuated with was possibly raped (“Porno” and “Normal Person” would then make more sense in context). I also think that she was probably a religious girl and that she was highly intelligent. This girl may have been dedicated to the “people” who killed her in the same way that Joan was dedicated to the Catholic Church. This brings up the natural conflict that our narrator has. He has difficulty believing in religion and an afterlife. At the same time, his love believed in it, and if he believes, that provides a possible chance to see the girl in the afterlife. Joan was 19 when she died and our Orpheus and Eurydice just happened to meet at 19 years of age.
This girl was probably incredibly outgoing and open with her opinions and beliefs whereas our narrator was not. (“Flashbulb Eyes” would be the people who look down on her beliefs or possibly her as a person) Okay, so if Eurydice is dead, what caused her death? My guess? Suicide. I think she jumped into the sea and purposely drowned. If sexual abuse was a normal thing for her and people chastised her for her beliefs, it’s not an incredibly hard thing to believe. There are some lyrics reinforce my beliefs as well:
Oh, how could it be, Eurydice?
I was standing beside you by a frozen sea
Will you ever get free?
Here, our narrator stands by Eurydice’s resting spot and wonders if she’ll ever escape. At the same time, the frozen sea represents the “reflection” that defines the think line I talked about earlier in the review.
But if you call for me
This frozen sea
It melts beneath me
Just wait until it’s over
Wait until it’s through
The narrator promises that she’ll be free eventually. He implies that it will all melt at some point and that’s when she’ll be free. (existentially within his mind of course) On the last song, these lines are sung:
You’ve lived for a year in a bed by the window
Reading books, better than memories
Wanna feel the seasons passing
Wanna feel the spring
I’m assuming that the narrator is talking about her resting place being the “bed” of ice and snow that is the frozen lake. The spring represents the melting of ice and that natural rebirth that everything goes through that time of year.
Okay, so Eurydice killed herself and our narrator copes with that throughout this whole album. Through this highly extended metaphor, Arcade Fire is able to explore themes of spirituality, contemporary technology and its effects on society, male/female sexuality and its portrayal in the media, and also light commentary on the cruel nature of capitalism. At the end of “Supersymmetry”, we get another long and discordant instrumental, signaling the end of our journey. So what was the fate of our narrator? Of our Orpheus? Well, you only have to look at the first track to see the fate of him.
Trapped in a prism, in a prism of light
Alone in the darkness, darkness of white
We fell in love, alone on a stage
In the reflective age
Will I see you on the other side?
Whether you believe in the afterlife or not, it’s largely agreed that you start seeing white or “the light’ when you’re about to die. The “darkness of white” signals that Orpheus about to die. The last line on the song is “Will I see you on the other side?” which further reinforces the idea.
The whole album is subtly one big story about two lovers who just weren’t meant to be. Arcade Fire have once again delivered with a bold, ambitious, and expectation-defying monolith of an album. The textures are often cold and distant, filled with discordant vocals and malevolent synths. Naught for nothing though, this reflects the cold nature of the story. Using metaphors filled with references to the story of Orpheus and Eurydice and of course Joan of Arc, Arcade Fire layer their story with multitudes of different meanings and interpretations, this was just mine. I would go so far as to say that this album’s concept was even better executed than their last album. Now, only time can dictate if this album is a classic or not. Let’s wait and see…
Best Tracks: Reflektor, Joan of Arc, It’s Never Over, Porno, Afterlife