Arcade Fire’s latest album, Reflektor, dropped in October 2013 – yes, it’s a little late in the game to be writing a commentary on it. Sorry. But I ended up at one of their concerts a while back and I’ve been thinking about this album a lot since then.
On our way home from that concert, my brother informed me that Reflektor has been called something along the lines of “a love story in the digital age.” Intriguing, yes, but I think that there’s actually a little more going on here than just that. The particular lyric behind all this speculation, and the album’s name, is “we fell in love in the reflective age” (from the title track, “Reflektor,” emphasis mine). This phrase felt familiar, and that’s because Arcade Fire didn’t coin it – nineteenth century Christian existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard did.
In his essay/book review Two Ages, Kierkegaard contrasts what he calls “The Age of Revolution” and “The Present Age.” Compared to the action-packed age of revolution, Kierkegaard laments the present age’s excessive introspection and lack of passion, calling it “a sensible, reflecting age, devoid of passion, flaring up in superficial, short-lived enthusiasm and prudentially relaxing in indolence” (68). People in the present age are constantly – possibly cyclically – reflecting, calculating, critiquing, and deciding, but rarely doing. “Everyone is well informed,” he says, “we all know everything, every course to take and the alternative courses, but no one is willing to take it” (104).
In the present age, public life is largely superficial. Fearing silence, people gossip and analyze, and individuals avoid standing out as to not become the subject of reflection and chatter. No longer a part of the public, the individual intentionally becomes a “nobody.” Kierkegaard considers the ways that the present age affects the individual, society, truth, and knowledge in a way that is profound and prophetic.
But Kierkegaard doesn’t say much about love. As interesting as his commentary is, I wonder what he would say about interpersonal romantic relationships in the present age. This is where Arcade Fire comes in, because I think Reflektor touches upon this in an important way. The problematic patterns that Kierkegaard originally described have only intensified in the centuries since he wrote Two Ages. Technology allows us to spend less time attending to meeting basic needs, freeing us up to be more reflective than ever before (24-hour news cycles, social media, personal blogs, and the like are simultaneously catalysts for and products of this reflection). This is why I find Reflektor so compelling and important.
So what is it to be in love in the reflective age? Throughout this album, we encounter two lovers who are just trying to hold on. But will they? Can they?
Questions pierce the quiet moments of the present age, resulting in uncertainty and instability. The two lovers are unsure about who they are and where they stand, and their questions speak to this.
Oh, when love is gone, Where does it go?
Will I see you on the other side?
She said, “Well how do I know, When I know, When I know?” You already know.
“You Already Know”
They are extremely conscious of themselves and their relationship, and how unstable it really is.
Our song escapes on little silver discs,
Our love is plastic, we’ll break it to bits.
We know there’s a price to pay for love in a reflective age,
I met you up upon a stage, our love in a reflective age,
The album culminates with a duet of songs – “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)” and “It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus)” – which retell a tragic myth in the present age. Like the mythical Orpheus and Eurydice, these reflective lovers are now anxiously and desperately trying to restore what they had.
He says to her:
You were born in the little town
Before the awful sound started coming down
There’s so much inside you that you won’t let me see
You fly away from me, but it’s an awful sound when you hit the ground
It’s an awful sound when you hit the ground.
And assures him:
We’ll wait until it’s over
Wait until it’s through
You say it’s not me, it’s you
“It’s Never Over”
And then together, we hear them descend into a cyclical conversation of assurance and uncertainty, assuring each other that “you will get over,” even though “it’s never over.” Ultimately, they reminisce and lament:
We stood beside
A frozen sea
I saw you out
In front of me
A hollow moon
Oh Orpheus, Eurydice
Its over too soon.
“It’s Never Over”
The remainder of the album, “Afterlife” and “Supersymmetry,” shows them trying to work things out, but ultimately wondering about what happens when love is lost wonders about what happens when love is lost. The album ends with the chilling lyrics:
It’s been a while since I’ve been to see you
I don’t know where, but you’re not with me
Heard a voice, like an echo
But it came from you.
I’m not sure that Reflektor is trying to teach us how to maintain or restore love in the present age. Instead, it gives us a glimpse of that reflective anxiety and how it affects individuals and those closest to them. We see what happens when love is simply abstract and breakable, and insecurity is consuming. It’s tragic, and it’s over too soon.