Arcade Fire’s fourth album, Reflektor, diverges dramatically from rock conventions and resists the type of geographically specific and coherent narratives that made 2010’s Grammy-winning The Suburbs so accessible. Instead, the band has crafted an album that, despite its various musical influences and cultural reference points (Greek mythology, the Bible, and French history, among others), coheres into a sustained meditation on the fragility of human connection.
Frontman Win Butler has spoken about his obsession with Kierkegaard’s 1846 essay “The Present Age,” which posits a distinction between “reflective” and “passionate” ages, the former being moments when society “flies into enthusiasm for a moment only to decline back into indolence.” On Reflektor’s title track, Butler has applied this concept to the age of cloud computing, social networking, and government surveillance: The song opens with the couplet, “Trapped in a prison, a prism of light/Alone in the darkness, darkness of white,” alluding to the NSA’s much-talked-about data-mining program and evoking the comforting, artificial glow of LCD screens. The song’s existential anxiety reaches its climax in the second verse: “Now the signals we send are deflected again/We’re so connected, but are we even friends?”
Even “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)” and “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus),” which allude to the allegory of Orpheus and Eurydice depicted on the cover via Rodin’s sculpture of the doomed lovers, ultimately circle back to Kierkegaard and the themes of technology and isolation: “We know there’s a price to pay/For love in the reflective age.” Combing these references doesn’t function simply to showcase Butler’s familiarity with the Western cultural canon, but to portray how the dystopian technoscape established on earlier tracks effects relationships on a personal level. And rather than accepting the Greek myth’s ill-fated ending, “It’s Never Over” implies the possibility of surmounting obstacles: “I’ll sing your name ’til you’re sick of me…We’ll figure it out somehow.”
In moments like these, the album proposes music as a way to acknowledge and ultimately prevail over the complacency of a reflective age. Knitting a diverse mélange of musical styles, including disco beats, elements of space-rock ambience reminiscent of early Pink Floyd, and percussion lifted from the Haitian traditions of kompa meringue and rara street music, “Here Comes the Night Time” pays tribute to the carnival parades Arcade Fire observed during their travels to Haiti, periods during which musical performances leavened the pressures of poverty and environmental destruction that have plagued the region. Recorded live, the song begins with snatches of street noise followed by the type of electric guitar screech and furious drum assault that’s opened many Arcade Fire tracks, yet the tempo eventually settles into an easygoing dub cadence that allows the band to add and subtract layers of synthesizers and percussion. Just when the steel drums start to feel repetitive, a modulated synth-organ blasts into the mix, guiding the sound into a totally different sonic dimension.
Butler sighs conspicuously at the beginning of “Normal Person,” slowly intoning, “Do you like rock n’ roll music? Cause I don’t know if I do…” The question and tentative answer encapsulates the way in which Reflektor represents a turning point in Arcade Fire’s career: The band certainly hasn’t left rock behind, but they’ve found a way to push beyond a sense of exhaustion with the resources that the genre has to offer, while at the same time reflecting on the tenuousness of interpersonal connection in an age of hyper-evolving technology.