Album Review: M83 – Fantasy

[Mute; 2023]

Since the beginning of the millennium, Anthony Gonzalez, the mastermind behind M83, has alchemized sounds that move hearts with the same force needed to move mountains and explode stars. 2011’s generation-defining Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming proved to be the pinnacle showing of this kind of power but also a pivotal turning point for the project moving forward. Unfortunately, this turning point was also a steep downturn in quality of the project’s subsequent output. The aforementioned record garnered deserved mainstream attention, but, as a result, Gonzalez went on to push against the grain of a broader spotlight with 2015’s aptly-titled Junk, which saw him stick his tongue out at those who wanted more HUWD. The record was a mess by every standard and lacked the moving spirit that always coursed through M83. 

Making matters worse and devotees more frustrated, Gonzalez perpetuated this downturn with the lifeless DSVII, an instrumental effort that saw him reminisce and self-indulge in sounds that soundtracked memories long lost. With these efforts, hope for the cosmic euphoria of M83 to return went by the wayside. This had nothing to do with a lack of inspiration but an arrow pointed too far inward. Gonzalez was making music for himself and only himself. There’s nothing wrong with this, but when you’ve built an identity by moving others, making them feel alive when everything around feels like horrible nothing, why retreat and mutilate a good thing into a caricatured, self-absorbed version of itself? 

Nevertheless, after a decade of unfulfilled expectations, Gonzalez has finally returned to reality — in the clouds, that is — to restore his purpose as M83: to be a vessel for others to dream, diffuse then scatter into the universe. On Fantasy, he’s offered himself as this vessel for the first time in a long time.

When delicate resonant guitar strums melt and give way to encompassing synth throb and hum 45 seconds into “Water Deep”, the opening instrumental cut off M83’s latest, the transportive effect of Gonzalez appears to have been restored. It’s such a simple instrumental track, unmiraculous even, but the familiar effect of Gonzalez’ distinguishable synthesized magic within the first few chords of the album is a hair-raising initial experience that’ll have the heart blooming in anticipation of the journey ahead. 

“Water Deep” blossoms seamlessly into the rest of the record, including lead single “Oceans Niagara”, which, again, is a rather conventional M83 listen but one that features a nice new wrinkle in the form of krautrock guitars to drive listeners through the extraterrestrial world Gonzalez has prepared for us.

The sprawling, eight-minute motorik behemoth “Kool Nuit” is all but those descriptors at first. For three minutes, it’s a hypnagogic netherworld forcing the listener into a romantic stillness, before it suddenly propels into a Kraftwerk-inspired second half where urgent synths, rippling drums, and galloping guitars launch listeners out of orbit with a rush echoing the technicolor stargate scene from 2001 A Space Odyssey. This is the same world-building and world-exploding effect M83’s music had so many years ago. Other single-worthy moments like “Amnesia” and “Earth To Sea” (which should become a fan favorite) both fall back in line with the project’s more traditional, forward-momentum synth-pop that recalls much of Saturdays = Youth.

However, it is large-scale moments like “Us and the Rest” or the “Radar, Far, Gone” that will quench that thirst for nostalgia that had laid dormant, buried in the pit of the despairing stomach for a decade. I thought this feeling was gone from M83’s music, but the sweeping grandeur of these moments stirred up a sense of wonder in the midst of serious doubt that had initially surfaced from the mere prospect of a new record from the project. Being overcome by the ocean-parting cataclysm of “Us and the Rest” reminded me of the first time I ever heard “Outro”, while the slow-crescendoing explosion of “Radar, Far, Gone” echoes the unfolding bloom of “Wait”. Such moments resonate with kindred catharsis; however, these songs possess a charm that feels especially unique coming after a disappointing and seemingly uninspired era of M83.

Some of the most beautiful music Gonzalez has ever made can be found on Fantasy. Unfortunately, most of those instances are loaded into the first half or, as Gonzalez denotes it, ‘chapter one’. When the listener moves deeper into this atmospheric offering, the journey becomes more of a sluggish trek, a chore rather than a fantastical voyage, deterred by an over-slathering of retro-futuristic ideas retraced to diminishing effect and an aesthetic that exists for aesthetic’s sake. Tracks like the underwritten but overly long album closer “Dismemberment Bureau” and the tedious monotony of “Laura” are hardly memorable, and with what little impression they leave, the listener is left to shuffle back to the far more thrilling first half of Fantasy.

Moments of homogenized retread are cause for pause and may leave listeners to wonder if M83’s significance and transportive power can only truly exist in a special and particular time and place. Has our world outgrown the need for nostalgia-rooted synth-pop? Maybe — especially considering the state of world affairs, where realism is welcomed over fantastical retreats into a future that’s lost in the past. With a good chunk of the record trying to recapture something that already existed, trimming Fantasy of its unkempt and far less affecting excess would have done it great justice. 

But alas, Gonzalez is still by himself up in the clouds and stars, playing with his synthesizers and creating music in hopes that listeners will join him to dream — and dream big — despite the horrid world below. That’s always been the curse and magic of M83. And while Fantasy is not a perfect return by any means, it’s a return that makes you remember M83’s power to combat the static void at the core of many of us. In place of that void, listeners are filled with the feeling that they’re part of something bigger and freed — free to fall in love with dreaming again.