Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Arcade Fire “Reflektor” (2013, Merge)

By: Ben Johnson

“In today’s information age, we’re dealing with a 24 hour news cycle.” You might have heard about this from people who manage to say nothing during a majority of the occasions when they are talking, often a “media guru” of some kind. The phrase “24 hour news cycle” means nothing. What these people mean to say is “we now have immediate access to information, and it’s making all media outlets compete in real time on relatively equal footing, and that’s changing our culture to one of hyperbole and distraction and in commentary an obsession with rapidly finding the perfect ‘take,’ where every news item with sufficient pithiness to enter popular consciousness is picked up, examined perfunctorily, and then dropped forever like a baby with a rattle who all of a sudden sees a doggie.”

Music fans have long known this phenomenon as “hype.” It is an ancient concept. Hype seeks to convince you that the moments in your life, strung together and punctuated by these news items, add up to something. Hype posits that, for example, an album, or movie, or book, does or does not delineate a strong enough pattern in the tea leaves of Our Modern Culture to justify a dialogue about where we are headed. This thing is not just the thing itself, but an indication of a larger cultural movement, a trend you should invest in or avoid investing in; something you could become or avoid becoming. Hype would have us believe that he story of music and culture is a real flowing force which, if properly navigated by the humble but knowing author, could carry us from where we are to a different, better place, if only we’d pay attention. All this and more, according to hype, all typed out innocently enough by hundreds of little thinkers like me on blogs like this, some of whom receive the benefit of laughably small monetary compensation, and many of whom actually believe some of the shit they’re saying while they’re saying it.

Most of hype is a lie. An album is an album. If you listen to it and like it, you might want to listen to it again. If you don’t, you probably won’t. Maybe also instead of listening to this album, no matter how good you think it is, you’ll do something else with your time. Like watching a TV show in numb disinterest as a menagerie of banal injustices from the daily waking nightmare you call a life gradually fade from your immediate memory; or listening to a different album you also like; or cleaning blood vomit out of your car in the parking lot of an Aldi at 3:00am. An album, any album, is only very infrequently a thing people care about that changes their lives on any meaningful level. Usually this happens to 20 year old people whose lives are so stupid and unformed they can be meaningfully changed by some childish asshole with a guitar.

But there’s also some truth to hype. If an album or a song breaks huge, more albums and songs are probably going to sound like it in the future. If the only people paying musicians are advertisers, then most music is going to sound like a car commercial. Music goes where the capital is. It uses available technology. It, like all “art,” is a regurgitation of the influences and interests of the “artist.” It forms in the crucible of its context. Music is a part of the process of culture, and if you’re interested in that process, the form and shape of hype can be either instructive or a pleasant diversion. Hype, and its attending disappointments and limitations, can help you define what you are and what you are not. And: with the right contact you can freelance album reviews at $50 a pop, which is basically free money, because you’re probably just going to listen to records all day anyway.

Anyhow, the most recent Arcade Fire album came out a couple of weeks ago, and everybody had a take on it that week. I did not. I didn’t care. I was waiting until something like what happened today happened: a coworker who quaintly bought the actual CD thrust the actual album into my actual hand and said “here.” I am so incurious about this album that I had to be physically burdened with it in order to give it a listen. Not out of any particular sense of obstinacy (this one got covered by my regular base-level obstinacy, which is considerable). I’ve just been vomiting a lot of blood recently. You know, figuratively.

Here’s what I think, two weeks late on the hype cycle:

1. “Reflektor”

Oh. This just sounds like Roxy Music.

2. “We Exist”

Yeah, it’s like… it’s Roxy Music.

3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10. 11. 12. 13. “Songs That Sound Like Roxy Music”

Wait. How do I feel about Roxy Music? Do I love them? Do I hate them? Somewhere in the middle, with few peaks of intense like (“Virginia Plain,” “Do The Strand,” “Mother of Pearl,” “Love Is The Drug”) and many more common valleys of “not feelin’ it” (lugubrious arthouse album cuts, would-be singles without hooks, generally funky but somehow undanceable midtempo numbers)? Okay, yeah, that.

Arcade Fire Reflektor is that. This is like finding Stranded for a dollar without having heard it before, and taking it home and being kind of psyched that it’s this good and you got it for only a dollar, and then you put it away and through years of relative indifference just so happen to never listen to it again, but thanks to the “hey, not bad” first impression you’re nonetheless forever after struck with a vague notion that you like Roxy Music and Roxy Music is a good band. Reflektor is a new wave album in artsy fartsy clothing. It’s got some nice little sounds on it (“Here Comes The Night Time”). It’s got some excruciating songwriting in places (“Normal Person”). It moves along until it’s done. It’s an album of music. No more and no less. You know, like Roxy Music. Nobody’s favorite band. Theoretically handy in case you get tired of David Bowie or Eno’s solo records in some self-imposed mental reality where those three entities are responsible for the only records in existence.

I could go on and find a “take” about how Arcade Fire’s experiment is replacing soulfulness with earnestness and hoping nobody notices. Or how Chris Richards is wrong yet funny, but the wrong doesn’t matter because all things being equal funny wins, and it’s fun to say things like “Arcade Fire is this century’s Counting Crows” and then act like you mean it, while privately you are cashing a check and smirking that you have the power to open your mouth and say something arbitrary and ridiculous about a clearly inconsequential thing and yet be taken seriously. I could mention the NPR interview with the band in which they touted a Haitian influence, and postulate that they’re a large-level band which took this peppy (for them) turn simply because they wanted to write some songs that would help them rock a party, and they threw some mawkish lyrics and dire-seeming dynamics on top because Haitian as they can possibly get, they’re still only ever going to be Arcade Fire. (And probably also they want to license a song in a car commercial, and you can't do that by imitating Neutral Milk Hotel, playing a saw and singing weird lyrics about burrowing into somebody's skin like they did on their first album). I'm not going to burden you with "takes" such as these.

I mean clearly I could do that, and in fact I did just do that, but you wouldn’t care and even if you did it wouldn’t matter. This album came out two whole weeks ago. It’s history now. It’s a Cheerio crushed into the carpet at Red Lobster. It’s nothing. I’m nothing for talking about it. Goodbye.