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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.

'Kveikur' by Sigur Ros - could it be that this one record is able to answer that question, what is music?

‘Kveikur’ by Sigur Ros – could it be that this one record is able to answer the question, what is music?

What is music?  It’s a pretty bloody stupid question, especially as music is one of the few things that link us human-types together and runs as a conduit down through the ages.  It’s impossible to know if Icelandic post-rockers Sigur Ros ever ask the question or just go ahead and make music with all they know and feel.  On the basis of Kveikur it sounds very much like the latter.

Before discussing the contents of the record, here are a few bits and pieces you might want to know.  This is Sigur Ros’ seventh album over 15 years but first without founding multi-instrumentalist Kjartan Sveinsson, who left in 2012.  It’s hot on the heels of last year’s superbly brooding but divisive Valtari.  Why the rush?  Perhaps it’s to make the most of the new dynamic.  Also, Sigur Ros has now played Madison Square Garden and appeared on an episode of The Simpsons and, ahem, Sarah Brightman’s done a cover of one of their songs.

Is Kveikur – which apparently means ‘candlewick’the band’s leap towards U2/Coldplay territory?  No, thank Christ, but it is a significant part of their ongoing evolution.

The album opens with the surprisingly muscular and menacing ‘Brennisteinn’, which is based around a bass riff that sounds like someone trying to kill a fairy by squeezing the crap out of its stomach.  From there the band makes it way through its usual palette of widescreen peaks and troughs, lifting us up before easing us back down, and then bleeding into the next song.  On Kveikur there’s greater variety to Jonsi’s angelic falsetto – ‘Isjaki’ is a fine example – and there’s also more exploration of percussion; ‘Hrafntinna’ sounds like it was recorded in a cutlery factory.

This time around the band also seems more committed to working with light and dark, and it’s the dark that makes Sigur Ros a truly worthwhile proposition: they might do sweet, and glacial, and epic, but when they want to they can lead us into the murky depths.  Frustratingly, and despite the cover image of what could be a mask found in a psychiatric hospital (and hence adorn a death-metal record sleeve), Sigur Ros never really takes us over the edge.  ‘Yfirbord’, with its reverse-looped vocals, goes close.  If only they could find a producer they trust: oh my, Sigur Ros could break our hearts.  There’s also a slightly annoying tinny-ness to Kveikur; no matter what system the thing’s played on it does sound as though it was mixed in a supermarket with the fluorescent lights on.

But still, because these guys give a shit, this is an excellent album.  ‘Stormur’, all stabbing piano chords and frantic drumming, should fill stadiums and get the mobile-phones held aloft; no doubt ‘Kveikur’ will give the strobes and distortion pedals a work-out; and ‘Blapradur’ manages to be both beautiful and just a touch unhinged before it segues into a chorus most bands would kill for (here’s hoping an outfit like Crystal Castles will mix the thing – the results will tear nightclubs apart).  And there are choruses aplenty here; there’s rarely a dud moment or a lull.

So, in some ways, on Kveikur it’s business as usual in the weird but engagingly peculiar land of Sigur Ros, while at the same time the band gets to explore and expand their range.  And there’s no denying that Jonsi and co have a renewed sense of purpose, one as an actual rock band.  In a world where talent programs such as Idol and X-Factor and The Voice smother us with saccharine tosh, we need our Icelandic mates more than ever.  And so that one day we might be able to answer that pretty bloody stupid question: What is music?

I’m writing on a windy, drizzly, overcast Goulburn day.  I’ve had to triple-peg the washing on the clothesline otherwise it will end up down the street.  On the Tuesday just gone it was so windy – with gusts of 80km/hour we were the windiest place in the state – that one of my standard rose-bushes was decapitated; I’ve bandaged it up with masking tape and, miraculously, it seems to be recovering.  The chooks aren’t coping as well: Mrs Honky became poorly during the wind-storm and proceeded to go downhill until I woke up yesterday morning to find her still body on the floor of the run, the score marks of her legs in the dirt as if she thought she could outrun this.  But I noticed that she was making small, long, slow breaths, so I got down to a crouch.  She opened her eyes and looked at me, or at least in my general direction.  A few minutes later I returned to the run with gardening gloves and a large plastic bag.  She didn’t open her eyes, and her body was no longer breathing.

So here I am today, with the wind and the drizzle and the overcast sky.  And Inni by Sigur Ros playing on the television.  If there’s been one constant in my life since 2000 it has been Sigur Ros, the band that plays music which sounds like the earth is simultaneously falling apart and coming together, all because they’re from Iceland.  I’ve been with the band since their miraculous Ágætis byrjun album.  At first, I wasn’t taken by the enigmatically titled ( ) record, until I realised that I’d played it non-stop for eighteen months.  He Who Likes To Sing Along To Some Songs and I were lucky enough to see the band play at the Enmore Theatre in Sydney just before the Takk album was released in 2006, so that record will always remind me of how we downed a bucket-load of vodka and soda before the band took to the stage, and when they did how overwhelming it was – there were tears, that’s what I can tell you.

In 2007 Sigur Ros put out Hvarf/Heim, which is a cross between a b-side collection and live footage of the band playing intimate shows across their homeland.  And then came Med sud i eyrum vid endalaust (meaning ‘with a buzz in our ears we play endlessly’), the record with the young folk doing a nudie run across the road on the cover.  For the first time Sigur Ros worked with a producer (U2, Nine Inch Nails, Nick Cave, PJ Harvey et al), and the production is more three dimensional, the songs more varied, even if Med sud contains ‘Ara batur’, which is so widescreen Hollywood that you expect some trout-mouthed actress to leap out of the speakers and try to whisk you off to the altar.

And then the band went kaput, at least a temporary-hiatus kind of kaput.

But now we have Inni, which is the essentially the soundtrack to a film of the band playing live in London in 2008.  Where I’m from, for $39 you can get the DVD, two CDs, and the album across three vinyl records, which is quite a bargain.  In Inni, Sigur Ros sound more aggressively electric, which is no doubt because they aren’t playing with Amiina, their regular four-piece string section.  Lead singer Jonsi Birgisson is in extraordinary form, somehow sharing the secrets of his life even though we English-speaking types have no idea what he’s saying because he uses either Icelandic or his own made-up language, or an infuriatingly appealing combination of both.  As usual the band around him is both tight and expressive, although loose-limbed drummer Orri Pall Dyrason can sometimes sound as if he’s barely able to hold it all together.

Jonsi, who in the footage looks like a cross between Jimmy Hendrix and Adam Ant, and his almost pitch-perfect falsetto and his way of playing the guitar – with a violin bow – is undoubtedly the focus of Inni.  But just as important is the film-work by Vincent Morisset.  It is grainy, it is gritty, it is menacing.  Morisset takes us onto the stage, almost as though he wants to give us a first-person experience of the band.  He does not say, look how popular and talented Sigur Ros are; instead he takes us inside the band and beyond.  I mentioned the word menacing, and it’s an appropriate word for Inni.  Sure Sigur Ros can be pretty and beautiful, and yes sometimes they have their Enya moments, but there’s darkness at their core, a terrible darkness; anyone who’s noticed the David Lynch-esque motifs in Heim will know what I mean.  Morisset reveals the band’s gravitas by focussing on the musicians and their music; how revealing are these four men, how unafraid they are of being emotional.

There’s very little sweetness and light to Inni, which is a good thing.  Especially for days like this one, with the gale-force wind howling around the house, the grim sky, a dead bird in the garbage bin, and a rose-bush stuck together with masking tape.  Because if Sigur Ros says anything it’s this: work fucking hard to live the deepest life possible, because there’s nothing else.

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