THE ALBUM COVER image of Rodin’s Orpheus & Eurydice signals the theme of Arcade Fire’s longest and most involved album yet: this is a work all about loss and looking back, death and retrospection, memory and afterlife – big questions, tackled with suitable sonic majesty and, mercifully, the occasional sly grin.
The nature of heaven is a recurrent theme, right from the opening title-track. “If this is heaven, I don’t know what it’s for,” sings Win Butler, “If I can’t find you there, I don’t care.” The striding electro pulse swells ominously over seven minutes to a cacophonous conclusion, just the first of several moments when it feels as if you’re being sucked into a black hole. ‘We Exist’ is a rolling tsunami of sound with banked layers of keyboards; ‘Normal Person’ is an electro-rock fuzz-guitar grunge barrage; and even the shortest track, ‘Flashbulb Eyes’, manages to cram several kitchen-sinks’ worth of harsh beats, zippy electronic noises and effects into a three-minute dub whirlpool. More extraordinary still is ‘Here Comes the Night Time’, which speeds up and slows down before settling into a choppy groove with a subtle Caribbean flavour, then whips itself into another whirling vortex. “If there’s no music in heaven,” wonders Butler at one point, “then what’s it for?”
‘Joan of Arc’ is a tribute to the Maid of Orleans in the style of a T. Rex glam-rock boogie swollen to outsize proportions, while ‘It’s Never Over’ pursues a wry rhetorical point – “when you get older, you will discover it’s never over… it’s over too soon” – over an itchy funk groove. A form of closure is reached on ‘Supersymmetry’, a meditation on loss and memory whose percolating funk momentum recedes halfway through into fluttering drone textures, as if ghostly spirits were ascending.
It’s a brave and sometimes baffling album, broaching difficult themes; though faced with a series of such unforgiving electro-sonic maelstroms, one may hanker for the touches of folksy pastoralism that lightened earlier AF albums.
© Andy Gill, The Independent, 18 October 2013