Day late and a dollar short, perhaps–this song came out eight whole days ago. In today’s hyper-consuming, Facebook-addicted, Reddit-ing generation where one week becomes one month and a year compresses into a day, a dream that flies past while we watch our lives unfold on our phones’ camera app–I think of Modest Mouse’s song “Heart Cooks Brain”–where was I? I get so flustered with all these lenses obscuring my view–wait, I remember–eight days is a long time. Don’t you know that one of my old high school friends has made 21 new posts since “Reflektor” released? Don’t you know that twenty-one important, life-changing things happened to them in that span of 8 days? I read it, too, all of it. Yet, a year from now, they won’t remember what it was all about. And I won’t remember it, either. They’re someone that I knew but not anymore.
We live now in an embattled state, where social media and self-absorption has blurred and obscured the line between friend and stranger. This is the world that Arcade Fire’s new single, “Reflektor”, inhabits, questions, and condemns.
It starts with a buildup of noise just like “Neighborhood #1” did 9 years ago. But a lot has changed in 9 years — in 2004, Facebook was just a Harvard thing, Twitter was two years off, and the best-selling cellphone was the Nokia 2600–and the nostalgic world where humans connected on an personal scale by digging physical tunnels to each other is now on life support. The groove is darker and more mysterious, its sinister intentions at odds with its natural buoyancy. It has the disco pulse of the Funeral era, the cynicism of Neon Bible, and the desperate hope of The Suburbs. It sounds vaguely like something out of the 70s, vaguely like the 80s, vaguely like anytime you could think of. Win Butler & Co. manage to compress a whole lifetime of musical influences into a single song, creating a noir disco that sounds inscrutably vintage and yet belongs wholly to Arcade Fire. It is music appropriate for the title, a self-reflexive mirror of influences that circles back on itself endlessly.
Win Butler & Régine Chassagne handle the singing duties here; Régine does her French thing, another self-reflexive trick to obscure lyrics about being obscured (Arcade Fire did the same trick on “Une Année sans Lumière”). Win does his weirdly sexy, I’ve-got-a-dangerous-secret thing. He’s lost the yelps and screams of early Arcade Fire, but maintains the paranoid undercurrent that’s supported all their best work. Arcade Fire is a band whose music has relied on turning this paranoia for the present into communal nostalgia for the past, but all this Internet tomfoolery has made Butler’s head spin, and now he turns that shared nostalgia on its head: what if, instead of a common focal point leading to connection, music is actually just a mirror that reflects back onto the self, a projection of one’s own desires and fears, internalizing what should be external and breaking down what was once unifying? In the process of interrogation, Butler condemns social media (“The signals we send are deflected again, we’re still connected, but are we even friends?”), Skype (“We fell in love when I was 19 and now we’re staring at a screen”), and himself, crying out (with the aid of chameleonic David Bowie, no less) that the pure art he aims to create is tainted by his own reflections.
“Reflektor” builds and builds while synthesizers, saxophones, and guitars threaten to swallow up the song, until, alas! a single piano cuts through the mirror, humanizing the reflected world around it and reminding us that if only we can peer through the looking glass we can save ourselves. As the song pulses towards its conclusion, Butler asks “will I see you on the other side?” It’s a question sung with the urgency of a man who needs an answer, but it’s a plea and a mission statement, too. Just like “Reflektor,” it is multi-layered and self-reflexive. Does he need to see you through the mirror for his sanity, or yours? Is he the savior or the saved? The song ends with a glimmer of hope, but not with an answer–Butler’s not so willing to give that away, if he even knows it at all. Perhaps his–
Hey! I just got a Facebook notification. BRB.
– Jamie Stoike