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Arcade Fire's Religious Reflektions

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Co-author Luke Ballmer is a first year student at Hamilton College.

Mystical threads have always run deep through Arcade Fire's repertoire. Inversions, upside downs and inside outs emerge in "black mirrors" and the "darkness of light." Opposites are reconciled, and unification is at the core of life itself.

But are things reconciled? Does unity occur? What pure reflections and connections are really possible? Reflektor questions all this, questions the utopian visions of our networked society, our abilities for intimacy, and most of all, questions the link between the living and the dead. Deflection is as prevalent as reflection. Which may go some way to explaining the misspelling of the title. Something is always off, some dust settles on the mirror, scratches and cracks appear on the disk, or a concavity emerges that warps and twists our abilities to see clearly. The reflektor may be a mirror, but it's also a hall of mirrors, a disco ball, our souls.

Reflektor is a "concept" album in many of the old senses of that Sgt. Pepper-y term -- a band posing as another band, an impromptu feel as if it's all live and present at that moment, and a binding theme running through the tracks. It's the Beatles via Talking Heads Stop Making Sense and Radiohead's OK Computer, with riffs that sound straight outta the 80s, gathered in layers and heavily produced by the band and James Murphy. It's an album without sampling, unique in itself these days, yet that conjures and revives older sounds. Whiffs of The Cure, New Order, and T. Rex mix with current dance-heavy electronica.

On another level, this is Arcade Fire's version of U2's Pop. Bono even makes a cameo in the short, Roman Coppola-directed film, "Here Comes the Night Time," as Butler pushes the U2 lead man off the stage. Below the flash and lights, the lyrics of "Here Comes the Night Time" protest the missionaries and a false Christian mission, while U2's Pop was an extravaganza but contained some heavy doses of theological doubt and longing (see "Wake Up Dead Man" and "Playboy Mansion"; critically panned though it was, Pop was much more than bubble gum.) Reflektor pushes the ridiculous, sometimes with the music but even more so with the videos and spectacle surrounding it. The Coppola film comes close to the ridiculous spectacle of Pop, but the gravity of the lyrics and the underlying themes keep it from floating away.

Ultimately, it's Win Butler's voice that takes precedence, and his lyrics quickly become the fuel for online speculations. Butler stands as close to the microphone as he does to his principles. We hear his occasional hiss, and the sarcasm drip. Is he channeling some great force? Prophet like? Mediating between worlds, of North America and Haiti? Between himself and wife/band mate Régine Chassagne? The dead and the living?

We'd like technology, and even religion (Butler studied in theology at McGill), to serve as a "connector," bringing us deeper into some truth, be it love, friendship, escape, or the sublime. The reality Arcade Fire sees, however, is technology and the commodification of religion serving as a "reflektor" that forces us to stare ever-more self-deludedly, or increasingly into ruin (see: Orpheus) at ourselves. Eurydice and Orpheus were ruined because Orpheus couldn't trust Hades to release Eurydice, and looked back.

Looking is major theme behind the album. Through the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, Arcade Fire's long-standing concern with "staring at a screen," and trying to force a religion that subverts true practice for the material gain of the conjurers, Arcade Fire rails against falsity of appearance. "Flashbulb Eyes" is about pictures stealing souls; "Here Comes the Night Time" is about darkness threatening the vision and safety of Haitians; "Porno" is about the medium of technology once again threatening "what [Win and Regine or even Orpheus and Eurydice] know." "Reflektor," the song and centerpiece of the record, is on Reflektor, the album, made by a band that marketed itself heavily as The Reflektors prior to release.

"Joan of Arc" has Arcade Fire casting themselves (loosely, yet clearly) as the persecuted, martyrized, and then misunderstandingly "bandwagonized" St. Joan. Arcade Fire's final concern of vision includes even themselves, grappling with the idea of being a "normal person," their conclusion seems to be that if anyone is normal, they are just as wholly a part of the struggle against life's delusions and false images as the "normal" are.

The many Christian references in Arcade Fire's lyrics have often been noted, and Butler himself has been clear about them. But Reflektor brings in some good doses of Haitian vodou. "Here Comes the Night Time" references the trance possession in vodou ("spirits on me like a live wire / a thousands horses . . . ") and the accompanying booklet and pre-release advertisements used symbols that are not unlike the veve used in vodou ceremonies. (Veve are cosmograms, drawn with some powdered substance like cornmeal, ash, or chalk on the floor where the spirits (loa) are evoked.) And "Awful Sound" calls up Damballah Weo and Ayida Weo, two loa who are consorts of each other. Win and Regine become Orpheus and Eurydice become Damballah and Ayida Wedo.

As with many traditions, but perhaps especially strong in the vodou tradition, the connection with the dead is key. And in the wake of the catastrophic 2010 Haitian earthquake, this takes on special pertinence. The absurdity of Christian evangelist Pat Robertson's accusations that the earthquake is the Haitians' payment for their "pact to the devil" was clearly not the majority Christian view, but what should the response be? What can be done in response to catastrophe? Remembering too that "night" is not behind us, it is ahead of us, coming toward us.

"Here comes the night" is a refrain, a common theme, perhaps the "concept" of this album. The first time we hear the phrase it accompanies some light keyboards (think, The Cure's "Close to Me"), pop music that gives it an almost romantic sound. The next time it recurs, at the start of the second disc, it becomes more haunting as night grows to symbolize an ending. As with all their albums, apocalyptic themes wind through Reflektor, and worlds coming to an end become cause for concern. But they get the notion right: apocalypse is now, and then. Worlds end on an occasional basis, as they ended in Haiti for so many. While North Americans use special effects to portray the apocalypse on large screen, the Haitians have seen it live and in person.

Perhaps in some far off land, some mystical place that is or is not real, there is a supersymmetry, a place "where no plane's go." But for now we are left to struggle with missed communications ("can you hear me now?"), veves not quite drawn correctly, scratches and cracks, imperfect angels, seeing through a glass dimly.