Album Review: M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming

[Mute; 2011]

The synthesizer has become the common denominator between about one million electronic music sub-genres (give or take). That includes the tangential places where rock and metal and jazz and hip-hop all convene at descriptors like “blurred” and “squelching” under the consummate banner of indie. Perhaps that’s approaching things from too broad a viewpoint. Synthesizers are capable of quite a vast array of sonic possibilities, yet they’ve become masthead for contemporary music’s homogenization and the degrees between many artists from a critical standpoint. So there’s obviously something in the collective water pointing us toward one aural destination or another.

But where does M83 mastermind Anthony Gonzales stand as a part of  this landscape? Well, remember 2003? I barely do, but M83 – back when it was a duo including Nicolas Fromegeau – released Dead Cities, Red Seas, & Lost Ghosts, a record that preceded both the later deluge of shoegaze (which has moved on somewhat to either dream pop or grunge) and the current hard-on for 80s synthesis, yet still remains, by an incredibly wide degree, singular and prescient. No one sounds like M83 – no one comes close – but the question becomes, how long is M83 allowed to sound like M83? Thus far, Gonzales has been smart to work within an aural framework for the albums that followed Dead Cities – 2005’s Before The Dawn Heals Us and 2008’s Saturdays=Youth can both be summed up with a glance at their cover art (a neon megalopolis and angsty hipsterific teenagers, respectively). And it is important to note the latter made a conscious move toward pop craft, in many cases doing away with some of the more overt bullet points that seemingly defined M83 prior – gargantuan walls of impenetrable synthesizers and guitars.

So by 2008 it looked like my question had been answered. But when Gonzales first pitched Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming at the end of last year, he described the sound as a return to the synth-heavy epic-ness of previous outings, before later further-describing the record as a blend of all his previous work. I can confidently say that Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming is indeed that. Almost to a fault. On his fifth LP, Gonzales seems to be at odds with progression and regression – finding diminishing returns on an extremely recognizable sound while simultaneously finding a boldness in the details and sculpting that sound into exactly what it strives to be. It’s a common enough signpost in a band’s life cycle to take stock and play to strengths rather than continue to make minor reinventions of themselves every record. Radiohead did it on Hail to the Thief. Lou Reed did it on New York. Mastodon just tried to do it on The Hunter. The optimist might argue that it’s the mark of a consistently good band in it for the long haul, while the cynic might argue it means the group is creatively bankrupt. I’d come down on the side of the former in M83’s case, yet at the same time Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming adds just enough to the pallet that it’s perhaps short-sighted to come any conclusions regarding the artist’s vitality at this point.

Hurry Up, Were Dreaming‘s ambition as a double album with a penitent for diversity is nothing to scoff at, but it also creates a readily divergent seventy-three minute listening experience. More than ever before, each song seems to occupy a space of its own rather than help to build a unifying and identifiably idiosyncratic atmosphere across the whole record as Gonzales’ previous three albums did. The Zola Jesus-featuring “Intro” and “Midnight City” both belong to the futuristic urban landscapes of Before the Dawn Heals Us, while “Reunion” gravitates toward Saturdays=Youth‘s brand of adolescent nostalgia. Shorter and/or more ambient interludes such as “Where Boats Go” and “Another Wave From You” have a harder time finding a place to fit in as atmospheric bridges to the longer and more significant songs. Simply put, each track must stand on its own. That said, all five of those songs I just mentioned are extremely invigorating and gorgeous and probably some of the best Gonzales has ever penned. There’s really not a misstep across the whole record (except maybe “Year One, One UFO”). It’s simply an album that has a hard time exceeding the sum of its parts from an artist that has been releasing albums that consistently do so.

Gonzales has never sounded more emotionally exacting than he has on Hurry Up. His songwriting abilities have amounted to some of the most affecting pop songs of this or any decade. His prowess at wringing the exact tonal and emotional beats out of a composition is surgical and organic whether it’s awe (“Midnight City”), angelic abandon (“Raconte-Moi Une Histoire”), longing (“Wait”), cathartic triumph (“Steve McQueen”) or blinding transcendence (“Outro” – which could go on forever as far as I’m concerned). The lessons he’s seemed to have learned from the pop music crash course of Saturdays=Youth have combined with the cinematic post-rock IMAX grandness of Before the Dawn and the airborne verticality of Dead Cities, and it definitely works, to say the least.

The additions and changes to M83’s repertoire are of pretty important note, if not significant points of progression. String arrangements and acoustic guitars join the instrumentation – simultaneously on the Fleet Foxes-goes-orchestral of “Soon, My Friend.” “Raconte-Moi Une Histoire” is a turn at Kraftwerk-ian motorik and “Claudia Lewis” might be the closest thing M83 gets to the glo-fi funk of chillwave (without the icky stigma attached). But most importantly, Gonzales’ voice has opened up, which becomes immediately apparent at the later versus of standout, “Midnight City.” Gonzales was apt to take the whisper-sing lessons of Kevin Shields even beyond the realm of shoegaze where it works as a textural contrast. On Saturdays=Youth, collaborator Morgan Kibby was able to pick up the slack where songs required a more meaty approach to vocals. But on Hurry Up, Gonzales has turned his voice into an affective throaty whiplash gasp that’s able to stand next to the mountainous saw tooth synthesizers and infinitely expansive sub-textures.

Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming is a record that shines a stark and revealing light on M83’s decade-long career as one of the most consistently interesting and inimitable acts indie music has. But not without exposing a certain amount of flaws. It shows an artist at the top of his songwriting game, but perhaps without the thick and palatable sense of cohesion definitive and prevalent on past releases. At this point, it’s hard to know what to let go and what to hold onto as a listener of M83, but regardless, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming is a pretty fantastic record.