Universal Music and Arcade Fire have spent months building anticipation. A single, dense with intriguing words and music, left us wanting more. Surprise performances and interviews on all the right talk shows made the band impossible to dodge. Hype like we haven’t seen since Chinese Democracy — and you know how well that turned out — was fully engaged. (OK, let’s say hype not seen since last year’s Bowie album, which for 24 hours was hailed as the most important recording ever released by anyone ever. That, of course, was before fans and critics had given it a proper listen. Subsequently, all agreed it should never be mentioned again.)
We’ve now had Reflektor in our hands for over 24 hours. And it’s still being talked about. That’s a long time in today’s media world. Ramped-up hype? Check. Copies of the album in every shop window and saturating every hip radio station? Check. Backlash fueled by critics with a chip on their collective shoulder? You know it. All is well with the grand plan to make this Arcade Fire’s supreme moment.
But for one thing.
It’s safe to say that when the Montreal-based band and its label discussed a contingency plan for the marketing campaign that has been in overdrive since the beginning of the month, the possibility that the album’s headline-grabbing thunder might be usurped by discussion related to the Senate of Canada, was not seriously considered.
But threat it is. Indeed, 109 years after Sir Wilfrid Laurier predicted that a century would belong to Canada, it seems our nation is finally worthy of international attention. No more will people talk of the most boring headlines being any related to Canada. Sure, our attempt at a spy scandal (something about allegedly stealing secrets from Brazil, as I recall) was a non-starter, the U.S. wasting little time before showing us just how spying is done — i.e., by stealing from everyone. But if you’re looking for political intrigue, dirty backroom deals and fiery public accusations, look no further than our government. The 21st Century, it seems, may belong to Canada — even if we have to steal it.
And so, with enough time passed to give Reflektor a bit of sober second thought, let us consider which major Canadian development has captured the public’s imagination during this week for the ages.
Reflektor conveys a bit of an 1980s feel, with a significant nod to German disco pioneer Giorgio Moroder. The Senate, meanwhile, has taken us back to the classic early-’80s backstabbing that brought us our much-maligned constitution. And it’s brought the Conservatives to the brink of Joe Clark-level implosion. Reflektor is the sound of the province not asked to sign-on to our constitution, living outside the mainstream even as it feeds on it. Arcade Fire’s charter of values includes sounds from Haiti and New York, by way of The Clash’s Sandinista! A dark, challenging effort by a band of creative forces, it is the sound of inclusion — of collaboration.
The Senate, not so much. Dark and challenging, yes. Like the song Reflektor, its chamber seemingly owes something to Midnight Express. But there will be no disco in Stephen Harper’s Canada, thank you. His is more of a Buddy Rich Vibe. His government and Arcade Fire do, however, share a flare for evoking Talking Heads’ Psycho Killer.
The album’s title track also boasts a surprise appearance by David Bowie, playing saxophone in his trademark play-in-a-day style. It’s a surprise, though nothing like the surprise Senator Duffy unleashed this week with the revelation that he received “at least two” cheques from his friends turned foes. If only Bowie could manipulate a saxophone as skillfully as Senator Duffy plays the media.
What Reflektor, the album, does well is to seamlessly flow from one track to the next, via transitional interludes that speak to the myriad influences on display. The Senate’s transitions have been, frankly, more jarring. And therefore simultaneously more punk and more experimental. Looking for sounds that truly venture into uncharted territory? Arcade Fire is no match for Canada’s Senate.
Not that the album does not have its share of adventurous excursions. Take, for instance, Here Comes the Night Time, the track at the heart of the double-LP, presented in two forms. The first is a smorgasbord of sound, taking us from a Haitian street scene through a brief Primal Scream rave-up, to a mid-tempo rocker with cool Hank B. Marvin guitar licks and jaunty piano that occasionally comes mischievously close to playing Chopsticks. The second is a three-minute orchestral beauty that is easily the album’s most sublime moment.
So far, nothing about Harper and his Senators has been close to sublime. Though, the prime minister is probably seated at his piano as you read this, playing Chopsticks for all it’s worth. And there’s nothing sublime about it.
And then there’s Awful Sound, another song to which all following the scandal can surely relate. Haitian influences dominate here, with the song ultimately coming to an abrupt end as a blast of white noise obliterates a slowly developing passage that is about to turn into November Rain. Of course, if a blast of white noise is your preference, both the Senate and the House of Commons are up to the challenge. More so the former, particularly if you buy Senator Brazeau’s notion that a certain prominent senator “doesn’t like aboriginal people.” Arcade Fire may have captured the musical essence of November Rain, but Harper and his henchman come closer to recreating the November Rain video.
The album concludes, by the way, with what appears to be a significant chunk of the work played backward on a cassette tape. (Nods to the cassette can be found elsewhere on the record.) The PM, by contrast, has been doing his best to erase what has come before, rather than playing it back. Backward or forward.
It’s a tough call. But for now, when it comes to utterly original, unpredictable and powerful work that finds a new twist with each turn, the week has to belong to the Senate. Ironically, that may well do irreparable damage to our prospects for owning the century. In which case, we’d do well to seek a bit of escapism from these troubled times. Alas, you won’t find it in Reflektor, an album whose sentiments are as troubled as the times.
How troubled? Well, let’s play a game. The following series of quotes is a mixture of Arcade Fire lyrics and comments by major players in the Senate scandal. Can you identify which is which?
Ready? Then let’s begin…
“You know I’ve got nothing to hide.”
“If you’re telling the truth then I guess I’ll have to fight.”
“Now it turns out I may have been mistaken.”
“You’re down on your knees, begging us please, praying that we don’t exist.”
“If that’s what’s normal now I don’t want to know.”
“I did not do anything wrong.”
“I know there’s a way we can leave today.”
“Think it over… It’s an awful sound when you hit the ground.”
“It seems like a big deal now; wait until it’s over… It’s never over.”
“We believe that we can’t be wrong.” (Sorry, that one’s Paul and Linda McCartney)
“Tell me why they treat me like this.”
“I don’t believe I owe anything.”
“When they get excited they try to hide it.”
“Not taking dictation from kids in short pants down the hall.”
“Little boys with their porn; makes me feel like something’s wrong.”
“I know you don’t like my answer, but my answer happens to be the truth.”
“Can we just work it out? Just scream and shout ’til we work it out?”
“We’ve all got things to hide.”
“I’m quite prepared… to give them the whole story.”
“I know I hurt you; I won’t deny it.”
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