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Arcade Fire's 'Reflektor': is this at last the perfect record?

Arcade Fire’s ‘Reflektor’: is this at last the perfect record for our beautifully fucked-up world?

How would it be to exist without music?

I for one would have no clue, and I don’t want to try imagining it, or even write much more along those lines.  But it is, perhaps, worth asking a related question: how would it be to exist without excellent music, or even very good music?  For me, this has been the question of the week.  And you can blame Arcade Fire for that.

I’ve been following this Montreal-based bunch since their highly acclaimed debut Funeral (2004).  Using the phrase ‘highly acclaimed’ in this context is hardly new or surprising – it seems that when Arcade Fire simply get out of bed in the morning there’s cause for rapturous excitement around the world, the sort of rapturous excitement that once greeted The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan (the crusty old shit that he’s become), David Bowie, Nirvana, and, erm, U-bloody-2.

But is Arcade Fire really that good?

There’s no doubt that when they’re fully charged they’re excellent.  Witness ‘Neighbourhood No. 2’ and ‘Wake Up’ from Funeral, ‘Intervention’ and ‘No Cars Go’ from Neon Bible (2007), and ‘The Suburbs’, ‘Ready to Start’, ‘Modern Man’ and ‘Suburban War’ from The Suburbs (2010).  One day Arcade Fire are going to put out a best-of that’s going to knock the socks off people and prove once and for all how great – and ‘great’ is the word – they can be.

However, and this is a big ‘however’: they can also be utterly infuriating.

Some Arcade Fire songs start brilliantly before burning out as though in the end they just didn’t know what to do with them but, hey, chuck it on the record anyway.  The band can pack too many ideas into each song (certainly Reflektor suffers from this in parts), and lyrically they can be as awfully obtuse as a Sixth Form poet inspired only by Google.  Throw into the mix the fact that they’re fueled by both anger and beauty, they appear to adore and detest modern life in equal measures, and they can be grand, dramatic, over-dramatic, over-blown even, but there’s also a deep vein of melancholia throughout.  A rich brew or a directionless mess?  They’re both, quite honestly.

So.  What to make of this latest record?

In a way it’s exactly what you’d expect.  This is, apparently, Arcade Fire’s dance collection and they enlisted LCD Soundsytem’s James Murphy to get their hips a-wigglin’.  Appropriately split over two discs, and inspired by the 1950 Brazilian classic Black Orpheus and its themes of death and isolation, Win Butler, wife Régine Chassagne, and the couple’s clever cohorts lead us from the superb ‘Reflektor’ – this is their ‘Atomic’ – through ‘You Already Know’, which sounds like what would happen if Butler fronted The Smiths and Queen, and the almost Clash-like ‘Joan of Arc’.

On the second disc the pairing of ‘Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)’ and ‘It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus)’ shows just how close Arcade Fire is getting to John Lennon, in ambition if not execution.  ‘Porno’, the most James Murphy-esque track, is a fine slice of moody electro, and ‘Afterlife’ is one of those typically exasperating Arcade Fire songs: a gorgeous verse, a glorious chorus, it’s all ‘Can we work it out?/If we scream and shout till we work it out?/Can we just work it out?/If we scream and shout till we work it out?’, and then, and then – well, it just collapses under its own weight.

Referencing a bunch of great bands and singer/songwriters here is intentional, including The Smiths and The Clash.  Is Reflektor as good as the former’s The Queen is Dead or the latter’s London Calling?  No, it’s not.  But it’s dangerously close.  It has the scope, depth, audacity, and a burning desire to create something as timelessly artful as those albums.  In some ways it also feels like the best mix-tape you could ever possibly receive (the inclusion on the second disc of the test-sound once found on cassettes alludes to this) and, perhaps, in the age of iTunes, YouTube, and Spotify, Reflektor is as good as it gets.

A magnificently flawed masterpiece.  Yes, let’s call it that.

And I can’t stop listening to it.

A confession: I’ve got the hots for a chick, and have had so for quite time.  Of course, she doesn’t have flesh and bones, at least not to me; she’s a voice, a music, and what an extraordinary voice she has, and what extraordinary music she makes.  And her most recent album: well, it’s been a long time since I’ve adored an album as much as this, how I’ve learnt every song, as in I’ve become to understand it all, it’s seeped into me, getting beneath my skin.  You know when you’re young and you listen to an album so often that you start to become sick of it?  So you wisen up and get into the habit of drip-feeding albums that you’re loving.  Or you love an album immediately only to find that it doesn’t hold its own ground.  Or you don’t like an album immediately, but soon find yourself playing it over and over, loving it intensely, obsessively, until it’s all-consuming.

PJ Harvey’s most recent album Let England Shake is the sort of album that makes me remember the great records from my deep, dark past – Faith by The Cure, London Calling by The Clash, The Queen is Dead by The Smiths – and I do own this latest Harvey opus on record, as in on vinyl, because that’s how I like to listen to the best albums that come my way.

Despite being an age-old though not uncritical PJ Harvey fan, I’ve come a little late to Let England Shake.  It was recorded over a five-week period at a church in Dorset UK in April and May 2010 (when I was bunking down in Launceston Tasmania, I realise rather deliciously) and released later that year.  In 2011 Harvey won the coveted Mercury Prize for this record, making her the only musician to have bagged the honour twice; she’d previously won it for Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea back in 2001.

What makes Harvey such an exciting, beguiling, and sometimes, let’s face it, frustrating singer-songwriter is her dogged refusal to repeat herself (Tim Winton should take notice, in more ways than one).  Her albums have covered such various terrain as riot-grrl grunge, folk, pop, electronica, sparse piano ballads (check out 2007’s White Chalk), and now she adds a dozen war songs to her, er, canon.

Harvey wrote Let England Shake over a two-and-a-half-year period, producing the lyrics first – she claims to be inspired by Harold Pinter and TS Elliot – before sitting down to set the lyrics to music.  Her mission, it’s clear, was to explore what it means to live in a country that’s at war.  However, this isn’t some table-thumping polemic; it’s intimate, it’s beautiful, it’s harsh, it’s haunting.  Her voice is higher than on previous records, and it’s complemented – more than appropriately – by the deep timbre of her long-time collaborators, John Parish, who Harvey has described as her music soul-mate, and Mick Harvey (no relation), who for many years has worked with Nick Cave.

Using instruments as diverse as autoharp, zither, piano, trombone and saxophone, as well as some cheeky and downright hilarious samples, Harvey has crafted an album that is as engaging as it is adventurous.  And it’s packed with tunes; it would almost be thigh-slapping good fun if it the subject matter wasn’t so serious.  Check out ‘The Last Living Rose’, the gut-wrenching ‘On Battleship Hill’ and ‘Written on the Forehead’ to experience the musical and emotional range of the album.

It’s true that PJ Harvey can be awkward company: I imagine that you’d have a delightful cup of tea with her, she’d smile, she’d talk sweetly but with brutal honesty, before she’d stand up, excuse herself, and go and play with her chooks or pot up some salvia.  And I haven’t always been faithful to her; in fact years have gone by when I’ve not had much to do with her.  But, despite the latest fixation on how ugly human beings can be to each other, how supremely violent for no real logical reason, we’re back together now.  And I feel that this time she’s with me for quite some time.  Even if she does a runner on me again, or I do a runner on her, I have no doubt that in twenty years time I’ll still be playing Let England Shake, and on vinyl, and loud, very very loud.

It’s been that weekend again in Sydney, that annual weekend, and perhaps it’s more than one weekend, a whole fortnight of it, maybe even a month, which would be a special kind of hell.  But it’s the weekend that I’m talking about, that’s been on my mind, the Saturday night in particular, it’s always the first weekend in March, which puts it smack-bang in the middle of my partner’s birthday week.  The Saturday night, the parade and party, all that dancing in the streets and in the great cavernous halls of Fox Studios, if that’s where the party’s held, as you can see I really have no idea about much of this Mardi Gras stuff.  Sydney Mardi Gras, they’ve dropped the ‘gay and lesbian’ bit, which, to me, is good and wise.

I always dread this time of year, a bit – a lot – like how I dread Christmas.  All the celebration, the public displays of some kind of joy and affection.  But it’s an empty celebration, both Christmas and Mardi Gras, because neither means anything to me.  If you wish me a happy Mardi Gras I’ll stare blankly at your face. If you wish me a happy gay Christmas, I may well bludgeon you with a baseball bat.

Have I been to a Mardi Gras?  Yes, twice: two parades (one of which was the 20th anniversary, in 1998), and one party.  Did I have a good time?  From what I can remember the parade was as it appears on the telly: so many guys in red Speedos and/or angel wings, so many drunk drag queens trying not to fall off the back of trucks, dykes on bikes, some political floats – it’s always good to see gay marriage getting a mention.  And the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, those men dressed up as nuns, which, if I’m to tell you the truth, never fails to give me a little chuckle.  And men in black leather, so many men in black leather, their butts hanging out.  And on the sidelines: thousands and thousands and thousands of people who come out to watch the show, the spectacular.  That’s what it seems to me: wheel out the funny sexuality people to entertain the drunk masses from the suburbs.

But my sexuality isn’t a show, it’s not a spectacular.

I became a teenager in the 1980s; I was in my own little world; music was my thing: The Cure, The Clash, New Order and, erm, Culture Club.  Early on, around twelve years old, thirteen, I knew I had feelings, strong feelings, explosive feelings for other boys.  I didn’t have a name for it, I didn’t want a name for it.  As scary as it was, how downright frightening, this thing, whatever it might have been, was mine, all mine.  I wanted to explore it; I wanted it to take me places.  Despite knowing that it wasn’t normal, whatever normal might be, might mean, I loved it, it was beautiful.  How good and golden it made me feel, how alive, blood-pumpingly alive.

I was shy, I was nervous, cautious.  I took little steps, just inched along, finding my own path, and never did I want a name for what I was doing, who I was, and if I did discover names for it I turned the other way.  Oscar Wilde may have infamously called love between men ‘the love that dare not speak its name’, but, to me, it’s the love that doesn’t need a name, because it’s in my blood and bones, my DNA, in every breath I take.  I wouldn’t change it for the world, it’s been my absolute delight, despite the heartache, the shock and horror.  So I fell in love with a boy in Fourth Form (or was it Third?), it happened again at university, which took me into the post-uni world, that cliff that’s jumped off, and then, in my mid-twenties, I met another boy, who became a partner, my partner to this day, who too isn’t fond of this weekend that’s been, this Mardi Gras.

Am I proud to be gay?  What is pride?  Self-respect, dignity, self-esteem, honour.  Must these words relate to me?  It’s just who I am, just what I’m made of – my sexuality comprises me.  Of course, I live in better times; it hasn’t always been easy for people like me to say the sort of things I’m saying.  In fact, I’m frankly astonished to learn that homosexuality was illegal in my home state of New South Wales until 1984, the year of my first love affair, puppy-love for sure, sweet and innocent, but also rich and intense and beautiful and profound; I was none the wiser of how a brush of the hand could put me in jail.  And in Tasmania, that dark island state of my nation, it was illegal until as recently as 1997, though that place has gone from zero to hero in no time as it now has some of the most progressive same-sex relationship laws in the country – but not in the world, not yet.

Australian Nobel Prize-winning novelist Patrick White, who was openly gay, said that he wished the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras would be stopped forever.  ‘A lot of screaming queens in Oxford Street will not help the cause for which we shall have to fight,’ he wrote.  Do I agree?  No, I don’t.  Like Christmas, it can go on, but it will have to go on without me, because it means nothing, it simply doesn’t represent my life.  Like all fair and decent people, I stopped wearing red Speedos in my last year of school, and even though I’m fond of angels, over-sized wings on me would look ridiculous – and hypocritical.  And drag queens?  Good for them, I say, but if that’s your thing and you come around to my place, well, please just be yourself, and cut the sarcasm, and that voice.

All I wanted when I was young is all I want now: beauty and love and intimacy.

I don’t need to dance in the street for these things.  I just want to feel it pulsing through my veins, as it always has, as it always will.

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