Reflektor: A Listening Guide

For those of you reading along with my series on Arcade Fire here is a brief outline/listening guide to their 2013 album Reflektor, which turns 1 year old next month. 

Let's get right to it.

The album has a basic subject/narrative undergirding each song:
We all live in the "Reflective Age", an age of passive reflection. Some of us have succumbed underneath the oppressive weight of this age and some of us have overcome it, living as rebels and revolutionaries and outsiders within it, forever fighting against it. For more on the concept of the "Reflective Age" please see this article.
The album is broken up into 2 discs, each containing its own primary themes and subjects:

Disc 1: Songs hopping back and forth between 1.) those blindly living within the Reflective Age, 2.) those revolting against the Reflective Age, and 3.) those who know they are trapped withing the age but are trying to escape it.

Disc 2: An account of a relationship that was destroyed because of the Reflective Age, where the man in the relationship overcomes the age but the woman is destroyed by it. He tries to save their relationship and her along with it but fails to do so. Both physical and emotional deaths are depicted or implied within the relationship, it never becoming entirely clear whether the woman physically died or whether the relationship broke down and thus she "died" in the heart of the man who pursued her. A loose telling of the Greek tragedy-myth "Orpheus and Eurydice" acts as a backdrop for the narrative of disc 2. 

Here is an explanation of the tracklist (For more insight into how the general themes of the album are woven into all the songs please see this article):

Disc 1: Succumbing to or rebelling against the Reflective Age:

1. Reflektor: The opening song acts as an introduction and thesis statement for the entire album, depicting the 3 types of people found in the Reflective Age (again, those unknowingly trapped, those revolting, and those trying to escape) as either a prologue to the Orpheus and Eurydice tale of disc 2 or as another parallel tragic love story. It is not entirely clear which type of Reflective Age person the man and woman singing the song is; sometimes it seems they are all three at once but most of time they would fit into the last category, those trapped but trying to escape. In many ways "Reflektor" would best stand as the opening track for disc 2, as the first chapter of the Orpheus and Eurydice tale, but it also works as the opening statement to the entirety of Reflektor as a work.

2. We Exist: Song #1 of someone revolting against the Reflective Age. Why has the Reflective Age labelled him an outsider?: his sexual identity.

3. Flashbulb Eyes: Song #1 of someone blindly living within the Reflective Age. They've "got nothing to hide" because they are a nothing themselves. Go ahead take their picture, they are not real anyway.

4. Here Comes the Night Time: Song #2 of someone revolting against the Reflective Age. Why has the Reflective Age labelled him an outsider?: for being poor, for being the wrong race, for being the wrong nationality, for joining the wrong religion, for liking music, and for wanting to be wild and free.

5. Normal Person: Song #3 of someone revolting against the Reflective Age. Why has the Reflective Age labelled him an outsider?: for not being "normal", which could include not being cruel enough, for not taking your tea at two, not speaking proper English, and for getting too excited.

6. You Already Know: Song #2 of someone blindly living in the Reflective Age but sung by a narrator who is himself revolting against it. The person who the narrator is singing about is miserable but is living in self-denial as to why. This person is passive, having let life move past them, life moving so fast as it does. But they need to move faster and acknowledge what they already know, which is why they feel so bad and sad. You already know, says the narrator, so stop wondering.

7. Joan of Arc: Song #4 of someone revolting against the Reflective Age. Why has the Reflective Age labelled her an outsider?: for being a woman and for seeing visions that no one else sees. The narrator sings the song to Joan herself, having become a devotee and follower. The time of the boys is through he says, it would appear patriarchy is coming to an end.

Summary: Here, on disc 1, we have revolutions against: traditional sexuality, accepted gender identities, patriarchy, post-colonialism, white European/North American privileged culture, fundamentalist religion, and dancing with freedom whilst listening to raucous music. Then juxtaposed with the outsiders we have a group of numbly miserable near non-existent people who have been crushed by the great black wave in the middle of the sea, the awful sound coming down.

NOTE: Each song centering around an outsider figure on disc 1 also contains many references to "them" or "they" who stand in opposition or judgment to the outsiders. This nameless group(s) of "them" are the unwitting agents of the Reflective Age.

Disc 2: The difficulty and impossibility of love in the Reflective Age:

1. Here Comes the Night Time II: An introduction to the themes of disc 2, not specifically referring to the ill-fated love story yet to be unfolded. The key lines to understanding where the album will go from here are: I hurt myself again/along with all my friends/feels like it never ends/here comes the night again. They have turned the understanding of night on its head. On "Here Comes the Night Time I" from disc one, the night is a place of uninhibited freedom, but now on disc 2, the night represents a more traditional understanding of darkness. To the narrator the night is a place of hurt, hurting that does not end and life lived with others will inevitably lead to pain.

2. Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice): Here the man, Orpheus, falls in love with the woman, Eurydice. He attempts to woo her but fails. Does she reject him, does she die, or does the society, itself in the grips of the Reflective Age, stand it the way of their love? The lyrics are left somewhat ambiguous leaving room for all three interpretations. Either way, the song ends with Orpheus lamenting there is a price to pay for falling in love during the Reflective Age, the price being that Eurydice is now gone from him.

3. It's Never Over (Hey Orpheus): Here Orpheus has traveled to the underworld to save Eurydice. This second song resembles the source material much more than the first song. The song has two repeated sections, one with Eurydice pleading to Orpheus not to turn around and to wait until it's over, till they have both crossed over into the land of the living. The other repeated lines manage to obscure the story, making it more abstract rather than concrete: "It's never over, it's never over, it's..." What exactly is never over? The pain perhaps, the struggle to persevere in a relationship? Perhaps even if they both make it through to the other side life will not get any easier. But they do not both make it. Eurydice is left behind and it is all over too soon.

4. Porno: Here the album makes quite a shift in tone—or at least it appears to. It is certainly one of the strangest sounding Arcade Fire songs in the whole of their oeuvre. But even though the Orpheus and Eurydice plot line seems to have been abandoned, the themes remain essentially the same. Here we have another man who desires his woman in all her reality. He does not want anything fake, he wants a real woman, no matter what flaws may accompany her, unlike those boys with their porno to whom belongs the Reflective Age, an age that has made him feel like there is something wrong with him. Here is a man who will not leave his woman, no matter how she behaves. He wants her in his life, despite the fact the Reflective Age makes a relationship with her an impossibility.

5. Afterlife: It is not clear if the narrator of this song is Orpheus or not. On one hand it would seem so as he speaks about the "afterlife" of a relationship, on the other hand it would appear this narrator's love is still around for him to "scream and shout" at in an attempt to work out their relationship. It hardly matters which is the actual case; in fact the ambiguity seems to be the point. Whether our life consists of a number of broken relationships or we lose our loved ones in death, life is always a struggle. It is not easy living with people and not easy living without them. Life is filled with numerous deaths, both literal and figurative. 

6. Supersymmetry: In our final song the man's love is truly gone now. She is a mere memory in his head, and memories are destined to be forgotten. And yet there is a strange symmetry between him and his former love; there is still a connection between him and her that will never subside. There is a subtle implication in this song that the man, now finally, has himself given in to the Reflective Age. He has barricaded himself in his mind. He is no longer living in the outside world. He is not pursuing new relationships or new ventures. All he holds on to is this feeling, this memory of her, while living completely alone in this world.

Summary: Disc 2 is about struggle, pain, loneliness, and loss within relationships. With the death of bot his love and his relationship with her, he too has died, even while he goes on living. In this way the Reflective Age has won, for in the end it devours us all. This seems a rather dismal conclusion I know, but the album certainly does not end on a happy note, but instead some kind of optimistic nihilism, a hope against hope. Perhaps Arcade Fire will have more to say on these subjects. We will have to wait until another work arrives.

NOTE: Whereas disc 1 consists of numerous examples of political and social commentary, disc 2 consists of a more universal tale, that of a love story. Therefore, disc 1 recounts more specific ways the Reflective Age destroys us and disc 2 recount a common, more general way the Reflective Age destroys us.

And finally, In some ways the discs are inverses of each other.
Disc 1 focuses on a number of stories, giving a specific reading of our general culture.
Disc 2 focuses on one story, giving a specific reading of one universal aspect of our culture, that of falling in love, maintaining a relationship, and then losing that relationship.

Other articles on Arcade Fire:
The Reflected Lyrics of Arcade Fire's Reflektor
The Explanation and Inspiration Behind Arcade Fire's Reflektor
Wakeup!: Uncovering Arcade Fire's Grand Narrative
Continual Themes and Subjects in the Work of Arcade Fire
Arcade Fire Songs Mentioning Light, Darkness, Mirrors, and Reflections

No comments: