Rating:Reflektor was, at the very least, a polarizing album. Depending on your appetite for sprawling Bowie odes and (let’s all admit it) pretty damn pretentious ideals, Reflektor was either when Arcade Fire finally cut loose, or where they lost themselves to smugness. Perhaps it makes sense then that pivotal AF member Will Butler decided to make a morsel sized LP that sounds absolutely ragged in comparison to the proggy, overstuffed ambitions of the last proper album he was a part of. But it’s worrying, and a bit fascinating, that Policy suffers from similar structural problems to its big brother; a billion ideas burbling away without any connective tissue.
It was certainly a fun little shock to see our first images of Butler as a frontman, dancing manically to the stark new wave tune, “Anna.” “Anna” doesn’t end up being the best track on the album, but finds Butler at his most self-assured. It’s chorus-less outside of a jaunty “bum-ba-bum-ba” that creeps behind verses filled with con men and murders. Butler sings “Take out the knife” with obvious, and slightly disturbing glee. It’s his best moment as a frontman, taking on a different sort of charisma from his brother. Whereas Win obsessed about raising the “kids” over oppression, Will is perfectly content to watch from the sidelines and throw popcorn at the madness.
“Son of God,” the album’s finest moment, has that same sort of manic charisma that has Butler blustering like a preacher tormented by the devil himself. It feels like a companion piece to the underrated Neon Bible gem “Antichrist Television Blues,” with Butler shouting blasphemies over jangling guitar and golden harmonies that make it the album’s heavenly center.
The thing about “Anna” and “Son of God” is that they actually feature Butler. The rest of the album is his in name only. The well-known Neil Young fetish that Arcade Fire have always had dominates wide segments of the album and washes away the personality that Butler could have built. Opening track “Take My Side” isn’t the sound of Will Butler, it’s an attempted, and failed, cloning experiment. The Butler brothers have always had some of Young’s yelp in their vocal chords, but “Take My Side” couldn’t be more Youngish if it was proclaiming that an overpriced piece of Toblerone would save the music industry. “Witness” has the same problem, though it has more groove in its step thanks to a gospel chorus covering up Butler’s vocals.
“Finish What I Started” and “Sing to Me” lean away from the Young pastiche, instead wondering into the land of half-baked piano ballads. “Sing to Me” attempts to be a moving and dusty hymn, but ends up feeling empty headed, while “Finish What I Started,” though lovely, ends prematurely, just before the song seems to hit its stride. The only outright awful song on the album is the mess that is “Something’s Coming,” but this isn’t a case of too many cooks in the kitchen, just the chef stuffing in a pantry’s worth of ideas into a noxious stew. The whispered chorus is nearly unlistenable and the sickly bass that accompanies it makes the effort an endurance test.
Policy is still hard to hate. After the overstuffed self-righteousness that’s dominated so much of Arcade Fire’s output, Policy is exceptionally messy, but it at least sounds like Butler is having a hell of a time. There’s a certain endearing charm in this confusing jumble. It comes off as goofy, but it has a soul somewhere in the mess.