> | | | > The Fall Of The Pitchfork Empire: Arcade Fire - Reflektor

The Fall Of The Pitchfork Empire: Arcade Fire - Reflektor

Posted on Wednesday, 30 October 2013 | 1 Comment

If you want to understand the power of Pitchfork, you need to understand Arcade Fire.
In the mid-noughties, when the effects of the internet on the music industry were becoming evident - when it could no longer be denied that the old ways of doing business would work no more, when the more instiutions and labels buried their heads in the sands the more sure they were to become swept away, when traditional music media faced the same fear of extinction as every other publication - two emergent bands sealed the power of new media within musical spheres. One was Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, a Talking Heads-styled band from New York whose initially self-published debut record shot to prominence after overwhelmingly positive notices from mp3 blogs and a still-emergent Pitchfork. Although their subsequent records would not make the same impact, it's likely they would have remained a far more local concern without coverage from a few websites. The other, of course, was Arcade Fire. Although they already had label support, their debut album Funeral could well have emerged as a far more cult record were it not for the intervention of Pitchfork, whose rave 9.7 rated review played a major role in the developing hype around them that would see them shoot up to become one of the largest alternative bands on the planet by the end of the decade. They were new media's first big, arena-filling success.

What's happened to the band since, however, has not been so new. What sold so many (this reviewer included) on Funeral was the passion invested in the recording, the going-for-glory energy powering it that only obscurity can buy. From there, they took their original template and made it bigger, gaudier, weirder (the relatively under-rated Neon Bible), before then releasing a tamer, mom-and-pop friendly take on their sound that took their already far-from-revolutionary template and sanded all the edges off for maximum basketball-court filling potential on The Suburbs. As wildly successful as that record proved, by then it was becoming clear that a lot of what had once been so appealing about the band was now cloying at best: the basic lyrics concerning 'the kids' had descended into cookie-cutter tedium delivered by a band of millionaires in their thirties, while stripping back some of the oddities in the arrangements had revealed a trying blandness in their basic compositions. They were no longer the same people, but they were trying to mine the same ideas to diminishing results.

So, like any old-media arena band, Arcade Fire did what they had to do, and took a turn for a left. Find a hip new ride to jump on, and hope for the best. After all, it worked for U2 (Achtung Baby) and Radiohead (Kid A), right? And Pitchfork sure loved the latter just fine. So here's Arcade Fire's own bid for a corporate reinvention, Reflektor, a shot at the same rejuvination-via-dance gambit that helped these acts (albiet temporarily in U2's case) rehabilitate from fame - look, they even got the hairy dude from LCD Soundsystem in to produce it! Admittedly, their desire to try and move on and to tackle new ground for the group is very much to Arcade Fire's credit, and while he might be a huge name in his own right, James Murphy still isn't the most expected collaborator for a band as invested in the ideal of 'real music' as Arcade Fire. Like a lot of bands who rise was entwined with the narrative of mass downloading and new media - Arctic Monkeys foremost amongst them - the actual music of Arcade Fire had been distinctly old-fashioned. Would this be the moment when their music got an exciting twenty-first century overhaul?

Spare your suspense: it isn't. In fact, across this seventy-five minute double album, it's not the only promise made in the lead-up to the album that ends up unfulfilled. Let's start, as the album does, with the title track. Released at the point in this record's lengthy pre-release campaign where excitement tipped over into impatience, it's the track where the hand of Murphy is at its most evident, with its 12" edit feel and classic Talking Heads groove. It's also one of the most successful songs here, with great vocal interplay between Win Butler and Regine Chassagne and a real sense of drive and rhythm. It also goes on at least two minutes after the point where interest can be sustained, and unfortunately this proves to be a constant throughout the record. Where so many stadium rockers have come to embrace dance music has an escape hatch from their self-importance to something more egalitarian, Arcade Fire singularly fail to leave their ego in the cloakroom. Throughout both discs of the album, enjoyable melodies or innovative (for Arcade Fire) arrangements prop up, only to fade away into something far more generic (Here Comes The Night Time, which switches from a bracing blast of frantic polyrhythms to launch into something slowler and duller) or instead to go on far past the point of enjoyment, like We Exist or the seemingly endless Afterlife. It also becomes painfully evident throughout that the rhythm section of Arcade Fire isn't up to the task - having mastered the dramatic thud needed for their earlier work, the necessary switch to something more subtle and dynamic to make this material come to life just isn't made.

There's also the fact that a lot of this album isn't far removed from the acoustic tedium of The Suburbs at all. The agonising stretch of Normal Person and You Already Know on the first disc marks a genuine nadir, the latter a dull country-rock run through which the band and/or producer have attended to alleviate with various samples drifting into the mix to little success, while the former is a genuinely dreadful track whose base meat-and-potatoes acoustic rock is married to a sneering, idiotic lyric whose toxic mixture of ill-considered  rage and pseudo-intellectualism resembles The Wall at its most arrogant and unlikeable. Even the successes on the album, like the stirring, churning glam of Joan of Arc (whose intro also suggests they've become far better at punk pastiche than they were on Month of May), are hurt by the band's apparent inability or unwillingness to edit. Throughout, you get the feeling Arcade Fire look down on dance music, approaching it with the smug 'oh, we can do this' attitude of the unreformed rocker who believes in the superiority of their six strings - and unsurprisingly, they frequently come undone in the same way straight actors so often fail at comedy. This chronic case of what I like to term De Niro Syndrome turns Reflektor away from the kind of back-to-ground exercise it purports itself to be and into a smug, bloated nightmare more typical of the arse end of seventies prog (yep, there's The Wall again then) that bloats rather than undercuts their self-importance and increasing distance from the audience from which they first came.

So if Reflektor is a tyrannosaur  in LCD clothing, what comes next? Maybe I ask this because, even as a one-time Arcade Fire fan, there just isn't enough of interest to write about in this album - it's too long, they're not that hot at dance music, Win Butler is probably a bit of a wanker, and they're a far more safe and conventional bunch than they'd ever care to admit, but there's not that much else to it. But if this is the end product of this huge revolution in the way music is consumed and thought about, a resurrection of the kind of distanced stadium side-show that was meant to be a thing of the past (and going back to The Wall once again, even Pink Floyd put a sodding disco beat on Another Brick In The Wall), what does it say about our tastemakers and, well, about us listeners too? Arcade Fire have now been elevated to the position where they can still fill the kind of mid-sized venues most bands can only dream of reach whilst using a pseudonym, and sell their new single at extortionate prices, while the exciting and innovative music that the growth of new music publiations and the democratic opportunities provided by the internet remains a minor concern. Maybe in a culture of near infinite choice, we've become blinded by choice and just go for the easiest option possible - an Arctic Monkeys, a The 1975, a Mumford & Sons. Maybe a lot of people just want something they can put on in the background that won't challenge us. But if you've ever championed the possibilities of the twenty-first century (and to some extent, any blogger like myself is evidently someone trying to make the most of the new opportunities for communication now out there), that it's ended up here can only be a dissapointment. And if you're a major tastemaker like Pitchfork, who pushed for the new only to emerge as the new Rolling Stone, the head of the new major-league rockist orthodoxy? Well, there's arse-covering reviews aplenty to keep the hipsters in line. But maybe the failure of the Pitchfork machine to launch the brave and exciting into the mainstream might lead the barbarians to the cultural walls: then the real fun might begin.


  1. You deserve an award for writing this xD



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