Every time a band tries to do something that’s different than the norm, detractors label that group as pretentious—the critical kiss of death. In a culture that’s suspicious of artistic aspirations, “pretentious” is a snide, easy way to diminish ambition. Rather than engaging with music that might be difficult, we accuse it of putting on airs.
In such an environment, no current band is considered as pretentious as Arcade Fire. Even Stephen Colbert acknowledged this perception when he had the group on The Colbert Report recently, commenting in jest, “Those guys: kind of pretentious.” There are many reasons why detractors label them as such. The group has more members than the typical band—12 in all for their current tour, including front man Win Butler and Butler's wife (and occasional lead vocalist) Régine Chassagne. They feature unconventional rock instruments such as xylophones and accordions. They make concept albums about death (Funeral), life under the Bush administration (Neon Bible) and suburban domesticity (The Suburbs). Their songs sometimes have sequels on the same album: “Neighborhood #2 (Laïka),” “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out),” “Neighborhood #4 (7 Kettles).” Sometimes they sing in French. And, most damning of all, they don’t care if people think they’re pretentious. Check out these lyrics from The Suburbs’ “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”: “They heard me singing and they told me to stop / Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock.”
Arcade Fire’s latest album, Reflektor, defiantly shoots for the “pretentious” label. But what’s meant by others to be a pejorative is precisely why I love Reflektor—even during the moments when I don’t love it. If nothing else, Reflektor is impressive because it finds Arcade Fire coming up with new ways to aggravate their naysayers. For one thing, Reflektor is a double album. Six of the album’s 13 tracks are more than six minutes long—and two more are almost that long. Plus, it’s a radical revamp of the band’s sound, incorporating dance elements courtesy of Reflektor producer, LCD Soundsystem front man and fellow pretentious artiste James Murphy. In an interview with Rolling Stone to discuss the album, Butler carted out philosopher Søren Kierkegaard and the cult film Black Orpheus as influences. “The Orpheus myth is the original love triangle, Romeo-and-Juliet kind of story,” he explained. “Lyrically, [the album is] not literally about my life. … [I]t’s trying to understand men and women and trying to get to the core. I’ve never wanted to sing about ‘Oh, baby baby.’”
Such pronouncements and highbrow reference points only solidify the conventional wisdom that Arcade Fire think they’re too good for pop music—not to mention being too good for those of us who might enjoy pop music. Arcade Fire’s songs, with their missionary zeal, have been riddled with self-importance from the start, expressing big emotions through allegories and conceptual ideas. (On 2004’s Funeral, they dramatized the grieving process with tunes about freak blizzards and vampire attacks.)
But what’s often overlooked is that to risk pretentiousness means opening oneself up to massive mockery if the experiment fails. Arcade Fire’s mission always has been to try to make genuinely challenging and unusual music—both to give us sounds that we’re not hearing anywhere else and to test the limits of their own aesthetic. Reflektor is irritating and indulgent at points, but that’s intentional: It’s an album that’s meant to goad us. That tension perfectly reflects Butler’s ongoing fight with what he considers a cynical, numbing culture.
From Neon Bible on, paranoia and mistrust have been central themes in Arcade Fire’s music. They’re all over Reflektor, no matter the occasionally bouncy beats, reggae influences and Jamaican rhythms. In the past, Butler has sounded off on everything from surveillance cameras (Neon Bible’s “Black Mirror”) to snarky, judgmental hipsters (The Suburbs’ “Rococo”), and the deep alienation on Reflektor is wedded to the group’s nervy sonic revamp. The buzzy opening title track has the same electronic pulse of LCD Soundsystem’s best moments, but it’s at the service of Butler’s worries about a love affair that’s fizzled due to our narcissistic obsession with social media. “We’re so connected, but are we even friends?” he wonders aloud. “We fell in love when I was 19 / And now we’re staring at a screen.” In Arcade Fire’s hands, those danceable beats sound chilly rather than exhilarating, the soundtrack to a dystopia in which we’ve lost our humanity.
The anger and anxiety don’t stop there. The New Wave club energy of “We Exist” is at the service of a desperate rallying cry for individuality, while even the sonically conventional “Normal Person” is a barbed indictment of conformity: “Is anything as strange as a normal person? / Is anyone as cruel as a normal person? / … [T]hey will break you down / ‘Til everything is normal now.” Throughout the song, Butler makes it clear that he considers “normal” to be synonymous with common, narrow-minded and unsophisticated. And if it’s not apparent enough that he wants no part of “normal,” Butler opens the song—the most straightforward rock track on Reflektor—by sardonically intoning, “Do you like rock and roll music? Because I don’t know if I do.” It’s as if he’s worried that by delivering a traditional indie-rock song he’s acquiescing to his enemies.
There’s no question Butler can be judgmental and snide, but more often than not what comes across as potentially pretentious in his lyrics is actually a candid attempt to find some sort of respite from a world he thinks doesn’t accept him. On Reflektor’s slightly punkish “Joan of Arc,” he compares an unnamed personal hero to the iconic Catholic martyr, linking his own persecution by his detractors to her far-more-tragic ordeal: “They’re the ones that spit on you / ‘Cause they got no heart … First they love you / Then they kill you / Then they love you again.” That persecution complex comes through as well in Butler’s Rolling Stone interview when he discussed the relevance of a Kierkegaard essay from the 1840s to his own life:
“He basically compares the reflective age to a passionate age. Like, if there was a piece of gold out on thin ice, in a passionate age, if someone went to try and get the gold, everyone would cheer them on and be like, ‘Go for it! Yeah you can do it!’ And in a reflective age, if someone tried to walk out on the thin ice, everyone would criticize them and say, ‘What an idiot! I can’t believe you’re going out on the ice to try and risk something.’ So it would kind of paralyze you to even act basically, and it just kind of resonated with me—wanting to try and make something in the world instead of just talking about things.”
Butler sees himself as a lonely brave soul, like Joan of Arc, trying to beat back all those who oppose him. Such delusions of grandeur would go down smoother with a sense of humor or perspective—a self-deprecating acknowledgement from Butler that, sometimes, he’s just full of shit. But like their arena-rock soul mates Bruce Springsteen and non-Achtung Baby U2, Arcade Fire rarely brandish a trace of wit: They’re too busy with their holy quest to sully themselves with jokes. Perhaps this is just as well. When Arcade Fire shoot for lighthearted, they come off as awkward as their post-Saturday Night Live half-hour special, which was meant to advertise Reflektor but mostly proved that even Zach Galifianakis, Ben Stiller and Bill Hader couldn’t make them funny.
But even when Reflektor stumbles over its ambitions or humorlessness, it falters boldly. Back-to-back songs on the second disc tell the Orpheus and Eurydice myth from two vantage points: They’re leaden conceptually, but as music, they’re gorgeous. “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)” is the band’s mutant version of a power ballad—Dark Side of the Moon for the download age—and “It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)” brings stadium-sized drama to the jittery laptop dance-rock that LCD Soundsystem explored on This Is Happening. Arcade Fire have always had a little prog-rock in them—they’re like the Flaming Lips without the acid-damaged hippie leanings. But like the great, bloated concept albums of the 1970s, Reflektor works as a stirring whole; its swooshing synthesizers and guitars collectively suggesting Butler’s dread about our unfeeling modern age.
To dismiss Reflektor as merely pretentious is to discredit the band’s aims and to shortchange our own potential enjoyment. Running more than 75 minutes, the album is the sound of a group pushing into unexplored terrain to find new ways to express eternal concerns: the loss of love, the need for personal convictions, the value of connection. Arcade Fire fall on their faces on occasion, but they make pretentiousness a noble pursuit in defiance of conformity—and one worth celebrating. “If you shoot, you better hit your mark,” Butler’s wife Chassagne advises on “Joan of Arc.” Risking coming across as insufferable at every turn, Arcade Fire know that advice applies to them most of all. And on Reflektor, they hit their mark a hell of a lot.
Photo by NRK P3/Flickr