Arcade Fire have always been obsessed with light. The first song Régine Chassagne and Win Butler ever wrote together, back in 2002 before they were married, was called ‘Headlights Look Like Diamonds’. The band they’re in is named after a story Win was told about an arcade being set alight in Exeter, Canada. On debut album ‘Funeral’ is the song ‘Une Année Sans Lumière’, which translates as ‘A Year Without Light’. The follow-up, ‘Neon Bible’, was, well, called ‘Neon Bible’. The track ‘Half Light I’ on third LP ‘The Suburbs’ has lyrics about Win not recognising his hometown because the light is dimming. And for fourth record ‘Reflektor’ the lights are brighter than ever. Camera flashes try to “take your soul” in ‘Flashbulb Eyes’, and a “prism of light” traps you in ‘Reflektor’. Even Orpheus and Eurydice, the mythical Greek figures on the album’s cover, were tricked by light. Orpheus was allowed to lead his dead wife Eurydice back from the underworld as long as he didn’t look back until they were outside. He turned too soon and lost her forever.
Lights, though, are no longer leading Arcade Fire where they want to go. “If this is heaven, I don’t know what it’s for”, Butler sings despondently on ‘Reflektor’. And so the Montreal band have abandoned rock’n’roll and written a dance record, one that’s shot through with famous bits of pop music: the ‘Billie Jean’ bassline in ‘We Exist’, the Prince falsetto in ‘It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)’, the honk of ‘Sound And Vision’ saxophones in ‘Here Comes The Night Time’. Even when ‘Reflektor’ does throw up a song that sounds like ‘old’ Arcade Fire, the band’s hallmarks are twisted out of shape. ‘Normal Person’ is introduced by a voice saying: “Do you like rock’n’roll music? Because I’m not sure I do”, before sinking into bloated riffs, swampy feedback and a flaccid solo. Afterwards there’s a clip of Jonathan Ross from the 2007 TV performance when Butler smashed a camera live on television. They’re making a statement. That was then, this is now.
LCD Soundsystem man James Murphy and producers Tom Elmhirst, Craig Silvey and Markus Dravs are partly responsible for the makeover, and ‘Reflektor’ is cleaner, sharper and dancier than anything the band have done before. This shift in the band’s style isn’t a huge surprise, and there have long been clues that Arcade Fire were tiring of being ‘rock stars’. Butler was saying as early as 2010 that “the clichéd rock life never seemed that cool” to him. So after last album ‘The Suburbs’ the band went on trips to Haiti – the country Régine’s parents fled to get away from a tyrannical dictator in the ’70s – to do some relief work and some writing. They also went to Jamaica, where they absorbed “voodoo rhythms” (Win’s words) and reggae. It’s in the second of ‘Reflektor’’s two halves that Arcade Fire’s experiments are most prominent. Some work, some don’t. On ‘Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)’ synths echo the anthemic wail of ‘Wake Up’ over an acoustic strum before the track slips into muzak. It’s a dud. By contrast, its answering track, ‘It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)’, is full of sadness and restraint, and the best thing Arcade Fire have ever done.
But it’s the album’s penultimate track, ‘Afterlife’, where Butler finally sounds like a man who’s found a way to make music without losing his mind. On perhaps the most glam song ever written about keeping a marriage together, he asks: “I’ve got to know, can we work it out? I’m going to work it out”. On ‘Reflektor’ he’s done so by lighting up the dancefloor.