‘Disco will never be over. It will always live in our minds and hearts. Something like this that was this big, and this important, and this great, will never die.’
So declared the character Josh in Walt Stillman’s 1998 film The Last Days of Disco and several key releases of 2013 could definitely provide some pretty damn conclusive evidence to back up his theory, chiefly among them Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories with its lead-off single Get Lucky (co-written by Nile Rodgers) and the Bohemian Rhapsody of Disco that is Giorgio Moroder. More recently and far more surprisingly was Arcade Fire’s curveball from early September, the single Reflektor.
You really should know Reflektor by now; the first taste of Arcade Fire’s fourth album had it all: seven and a half minutes of sublime, hypnotic and infectious art-school disco that displayed one of the planet’s most interesting and successful acts moving in a new and ambitious direction aided by James Murphy formerly of LCD Soundsystem on production duties along with long-time collaborator Markus Dravs (and the band itself). Reflektor also managed to feature a very brief vocal cameo from the man of the year, David Bowie, and was accompanied by a very intriguing and genuinely surreal video by Anton Corbijn.
One minute tense, the next triumphant and soaring with house piano, Reflektor is surely the best thing they had released since their debut album Funeral. Go on, remind yourself just how good it was:
So how does the rest of the album stand up to what you might have guessed is my favourite single of 2013 so far?
Firstly, a disclaimer, I’ve only listened to the album two and a half times (CD 1 twice and CD 2 three times) and from experience Arcade Fire can be a notoriously difficult act to judge from early exposure – on first hearing Neon Bible, I was convinced it was overblown and overlong but it did grow on me steadily on subsequent listens albeit I still believe the over earnest faux-Springsteenisms should have been ditched.
So although tracks 2, 3 and 4 here: We Exist, Flashbulb Eyes and Here Comes the Night Time failed to make any major impression on me, I’m not unduly worried as just might suddenly grab me a few more listens down the line.
We Exist would likely have been big on American FM radio in the 1980s, Flashbulb Eyes reminds me of Sandinista era Clash in that it is maybe an admirable failure; Here Comes the Night Time also shares some of Sandinista’s experimentation, a song obviously influenced by Win and Haitian born Régine’s visit to the country of her birth in 2011 that apparently made such a profound impression on them – interestingly, a couple of percussionists from that island have been drafted in to provide Reflektor with what Régine has lately been calling ‘voodoo rhythms’ in interviews.
‘Do you like rock and roll music?’ Butler asks as Normal Person kicks off, ‘Because I don’t know if I do’. Vocally, he initially veers so frustratingly close to a David Byrne impersonation that I can’t but help but visualise him wearing a big Stop Making Sense suit as he performs the song live, but the song also resides in a territory close to both the Robert Fripp guitar sound of Lodger and also Bowie’s version of Pixie’s Cactus on Heathen – and speaking of Cactus era Pixies, isn’t Régine Chassagne (like Kim Deal on Surfer Rosa and elsewhere) frankly always under-used on Arcade Fire albums?
After ‘Tonight, Matthew, I’m going to be David Byrne’, we are led into the next track with a rather unexpected sample of Jonathan Ross introducing the band a few years back on his TV chat show, maybe not their greatest idea but You Already Know is an irresistible toe-tapper – there’s a little Motown in its musical DNA and it would make a great single.
Joan of Arc starts off as a punkish thrash but speedily mutates into a junkyard glam stomp and is huge fun even if it does bring to mind the work that producer Mike Leander provided for a now very much derided chart topper of the mid ’70s.
Here endeth CD1 with a bang – unless you’re counting the unnecessary cassette tape toneburst which follows, and which is also used to introduce CD2.
‘I hurt myself again, along with all my friends/Feels like it never ends/Here comes the night time’.
Here Comes the Night Time II is a very different beast from its paired predecessor. The joyousness of Haiti during a carnival is gone, replaced by a gorgeous though deeply melancholic tune that sounds like it could have been written during the aftermath of one of those hurricanes or earthquakes that have caused so much devastation to that country in recent years but which seems to concern a strained to breaking point relationship (I think).
Next up are two more paired tracks, this time back-to-back, Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice) and It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus). The former starts with some great tribal drumming and ends with a football terraces style coda with some classic, anthemic Arcade Fire in between while the latter is haunting but danceable – and to possibly save you having to have a peek at Wikipedia, Orpheus was a legendary musician in Greek myth, who unsuccessfully attempted to bring his wife Eurydice back from the dead with his enchanting music – that’s them on the front cover as sculpted by Auguste Rodin.
Next up, Porno is just a little too plodding and a little too slick for my tastes and then the band seemingly felt unable to resist the temptation of throwing in a bit of New Order, one of the bands who have influenced them most deeply, into the mix with the penultimate track Afterlife, an ultimately uplifting slice of synthpop with a fantastic finale.
An eleven minute plus track, Supersymmetry, closes Reflektor and with some mesmerising Phillip Glass style sounds burbling away in the background, it begins promisingly but then to all extents and purposes ends on the six minute mark, though over full five minutes of absolutely superfluous noise like mild mannered Metal Machine Music follows on – oh and before I forget, don’t get too excited about the hidden track as that’s only more of the same sort of ambient gurgle.
So, the album is by no means perfect. Perhaps Flashbulb Eyes and Porno could have been excised along with the second half of Supersymmetry, cutting the album’s length by about fifteen minutes so that the double could have been fitted easily onto a single disc.
And what an outstandingly fine single disc it would have been.
Reflektor is out today, 28 October 2013.