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Discussions: M83

By Colin Joyce & Will Ryan; October 28, 2011 at 1:00 PM 

M83

Colin Joyce and Will Ryan tackle a modern favorite, M83, in our newest Discussions feature.

WILL RYAN: Alright dude, let’s talk some M83. I think one of special things about him (meaning Anthony Gonzalez) is, when discussing his catalog, you have three records that are pretty evenly matched (Dead Cities Red Seas & Lost Ghosts, Before The Dawn Heals Us, and Saturdays=Youth). I’m personally partial to Before the Dawn, it’s probably one of my favorite records of all time, but I’m hesitant to call it his best. It’s hard to put even one of those on top for me as I think M83 is a great example of an artist that is able to build on a strong aesthetic foundation to create uniquely realized individual records; which sort of explains why I love Before the Dawn so much. He was going for a specific nocturnal metropolis atmosphere, which I completely get off on (some of that is owed to my worship of Blade Runner, and Before the Dawn totally reeks of Vangelis). He seems to be an artist that works with a specific conceptual framework in mind, so it’s sort of comes down to what most appeals to you I guess. All that said, I might argue Dead Cities is his (in this case you have to mention Nicolas Fromageau) objective best — whatever that means. Where do you fall?

COLIN JOYCE: I’d say you hit it pretty spot on. I’ve always had an affinity to Before The Dawn, if only because I feel like it’s most representative of the things that I like most about M83. Stuff like “Teen Angst” is just so massive, and I think it’s that huge sound that initially drew me to the band. It’s punishing in a way that you don’t generally get outside the realms of punk and metal. Gonzalez makes pretty heavy music, less in the sense that it’s particularly loud or abrasive, but more in the sense that it’s just dense. Even on Dead Cities you see him taking up just about all the sonic space that he can — whether he’s filling it with voices, guitars or synthesizers — and whenever you make music without much empty space, it begins to become oppressive in the same way that a lot of heavier music is. Dead Cities and Before The Dawn Heals Us just have this enveloping quality to them, and I guess that’s why I personally prefer both of those albums to Saturdays=Youth. It just doesn’t sound as big, really. Your thoughts on that?

WILL: Agreed. It’s odd to even relegate him to the realm of “electronic” music as the energy and arrangement he usually tackles is so in line with the biggest of rock music. I’ve seem some label him as post-rock and in terms of how dramatic the sound is, I’d say it’s fair. He’s definitely a maximalist. It’s interesting that people labeled him shoegaze when Dead Cities first came out though, as he’s so defined by synthesizers and drum machines. He was doing the 80s synth thing long before it was cool, but even as that’s become a huge part of what defines modern indie music, still no one cranks it to the level he did and does. “Shoegaze” is apt in that he does create a wall out of those synths, especially on songs like “Teen Angst” (though he often does throw guitar in to the mix), though I think, like you pointed out, that density is more about filling the space with stuff than simply an aesthetic choice.

I’d agree that Dawn is by far his biggest record in terms of sonics. Three of those songs have full-ass fucking choirs on them and he pushes his vocals into a more atmospheric realm. In a lot of ways it even transcends the levels of bigness of even punk and metal just by how monolithic and orchestral it all feels. There’s a weight to Dawn that isn’t found on any of the other records – oppressive is a good way to put it. It really feels like he captured the spirit of a screaming neon megalopolis. He started digging into a lot of distorted bass, guitar feedback, sawtooth synthesizers, and really booming sequencers. Dead Cities is a little airier and a lot dreamier in comparison, though it does get to that hugeness at times as well (“Beauties Can Die”). Both remain emotionally singular records no matter how you look at it – enveloping, for sure.

I have a feeling Saturdays=Youth might be the album we center on most in this discussion, despite it both being our least favorite of the three. I agree that it’s not the densest of these albums, though I think it still gets pretty goddamn huge. It’s his most accessible and pop-leaning effort, and the first where he seemed to be approaching things from a standpoint of hooks and chorus/verse/verse structure with vocals out front. In some ways it’s the point as he was interested in mining an almost John Hughes sensibility. Where do you stand on how things changed from Dawn to Saturdays? Do you like the album?

COLIN: I mean, I certainly like it. It has its own worthwhile dynamic — it’s just a bit different, you know? I appreciate that he attempted to integrate feelings he hadn’t really incorporated yet. Dawn, as you said, was sort of focused on the sprawling metropolis sound and though Saturdays was a bit of a departure it’s still obvious on songs like “Couleurs” that we’re dealing with the same artist. Though the changes are there, it’s not like he altered his career trajectory. That being said, if Before The Dawn Heals Us was the sound of this bustling metropolis at night (as the cover depicts) Saturdays is the sound of the dawn itself: still soaring, but in a manner much more tranquil than its predecessor. It’s still a great feeling that I feel is captured really well by the use of female vocals. Morgan Kibby’s voice is really just heavenly, and it certainly contributes to that floating feeling I was talking about earlier. Especially on tracks like “Skin of The Night,” it’s her voice that really seems to let the tracks open up and breathe. On previous efforts, as you mentioned in regard to Before The Dawn specifically, the backing vocals seem to mostly serve to fill up any empty space in the arrangement and generally contribute to the epic nature of the songs. I think that’s really what it is with Saturdays. Gonzalez is working with mostly the same tools, but is manipulating them in ways that give off a different aesthetic. That’s just it in terms of where I rank it in relation to the other albums. I don’t really think it’s worse, I just prefer the intensity of “Teen Angst” to something like “Graveyard Girl.” Even so, “Kim & Jessie” is amongst my favorite M83 songs. How do you feel about Saturdays as a whole?

WILL: I like Saturdays a lot a lot. I’m glad you mentioned Morgan Kibby. Her addition definitely adds to the record’s distinct atmosphere. I think her vocal quality itself is important as it’s very angelic and airy as you said, which plays a role in the record’s youth-centric metanarrative, if you will. Again, it really shows how visionary Gonzalez is that the album came out the way it did. There are pianos and flanged guitars all over everything and the reference points embedded in 80s pop music are immediately clear. It’s definitely M83 making a pop record, but that’s almost the point. The pop music angle could be seen less as an evolution in M83’s trajectory and more just another aspect of the record’s concept, as pop music is a lot of times, regardless of its subject matter, a nostalgia piece and the soundtrack of youth. But as you said it’s obvious with songs like “Colours” and the outro (which works perfectly as a comedown) that we’re listening to M83. I can see why a lot of critical voices prop it up as his best. Other than being his most accessible, it really shows a hand for conceptual and purposeful song craft that wears its influences right out in the open. For me, it really just comes down to a preference for the aesthetic and atmosphere of earlier works.

COLIN: I’d certainly agree with you in terms of that preference, but I’d like to talk, if we could, about one of the often less discussed moments of his career. I’d argue that the stuff on Digital Shades Vol. 1, while not as instantly grabbing as the other albums, is an intriguing achievement in its own right. Though it’s a bit shorter, and the majority of the tracks are much more ambient (“Waves, Waves, Waves” seems to mimic or sample actual wave sounds) it’s as enveloping in its own way as many of the more intense works. Sure it’s quite a bit droney, but it’s one of those albums that you can just let wash over you instead of pummel you the way that Before the Dawn seems to. It doesn’t really have the Gonzalez’s distinct fingerprint in the way that the other albums do, but it’s very cool to have him explore some of the different tones that you hear him experimenting with across the catalog. What do you think of Digital Shades, or even the self-titled?

WILL: I really don’t like the self-titled record. I’ve only listened to it a couple times, to be fair, but it really doesn’t have much of an identity, and the difference between it and Dead Cities is pretty astonishing. It often doesn’t even sound like the same group. I forget about it most of the time, to be honest. Dead Cities always sits in my mind as their debut. Digital Shades I do like quite a bit, but I think you’re spot on about some of its drawbacks – mainly that it loses some of the M83-ness, which might have set it apart from other ambient drone groups. But it’s totally listenable and it has some amazing moments (“Coloring the Void,” “Dancing Mountains”). I think he packaged it in such an inoffensive kind of “extras” way that it totally works. It has the trouble of sounding like an album of good interludes, but interludes nonetheless. I think it does bring up Gonzalez as an ambient-informed artist though, which is another reason I love Before the Dawn so much. Tracks like “In The Cold I’m Standing” and especially “Safe” and “Let Men Burn Stars” are some incredible works of ambient music and they work more like film score ambiance than straight synth-drone stuff. Those last two I’d put in my top 10 M83 tracks easily. The crescendo in “Safe” is so overwhelming and tear-jerking. The ambient-bent stuff is another thing I missed about Saturdays, though I think “Midnight Souls Still Remain” is a pretty perfect and understated outro. How do you feel about some of those more ambient tracks?

COLIN: I think the ambient moments are what make the intense moments what they are, really. Even a track like “Birds,” the “Fitter Happier” of Dead Cities, Red Seas and Lost Ghosts, has a lot of merit to it. If you stripped that vocal sample it’d be something akin to a Tim Hecker track, and it serves as a perfect intro “Unrecorded” which while not the most intense of Gonzalez’s songs, seems quite heavy in comparison. And on that Tim Hecker note, though they’re certainly operating in entirely different realms, I see their work as being similar in scheme. Both of their works seem more cinematic in vision than many of their peers. They’re working to open up new spaces so to speak, to create new worlds, rather than to assault you with the songs themselves. That’s true of ambient music in general I’d say, the ability to create an entire mindset for a listener, and M83 is one of the few artists that can do that outside of an entirely ambient context.

WILL: I think that’s one of the things that M83 gets pegged for — his sound is so defined by how cinematic his synth tones are that he does sit alongside many of the more visceral ambient electronic artists while not really existing in the same space. So much so that thus far he’s become much more of an aesthetic artist rather than a songwriting-centric artist. He’s become a shorthand for a specific sonic hugeness in a lot of electronic music.

With that in mind it makes Saturdays an intriguing record as we’ve established it does step outside of what might be considered a signature M83 sound while maintaining his very established fingerprints. But what do you think some of his songwriting attributes might be? How has he evolved in that sense? If you compare songs like “Unrecorded” and “Teen Angst” and “Kim and Jesse” each from their respective albums, there’s some obvious evolution that starts to shy away from atmosphere and more toward song construction and pop melody. There’s obvious soft/loud dynamics and an often post-rock-ian approach to build and release, but – and not to sound too critical — that aesthetic sort of proceeded him up until Saturdays where he started to really arrange and write songs. That might undermine a lot of what went into Dead Cities and Before the Dawn, but I mean it in a general sense. Would you agree? Do you think he could have continued without recording Saturdays? It’s perhaps too speculative and serious of a question, but the more I think about M83 as an artist I love, the more I think I may be too invested as a fan to be okay with him evolving in some ways, you know? It’s a common theme in music fanaticism, I think. Where do you think he could foreseeably go with that very recognizable sound he’s established?

COLIN: That closer focus on actual songwriting and arrangement was I think what led to the uniqueness of Saturdays. If not for that, the songs — despite sounding more open — would have been largely the same. And you’re right, the thing you have to deal with when an artist evolves is whether or not he could have progressed further with his previous sound. In the case of M83, I think he picked exactly the right time to make more of a move toward that more song-focused sound. With Before The Dawn and Dead Cities, I think he explored much of what he could with that earlier aesthetic, so it’s certainly a good sign to see him moving in new directions, but when it comes down to it the songs just haven’t been entirely as compelling as earlier material. As great as a song like “Kim & Jessie” is — and, as I said earlier, I think it’s one of his best songs — it’s just hard for me to adjust to such a change. It’ll certainly be interesting to see what will happen with the new album. Each of the two tracks we’ve seen from it seem to obviously fit one of these aesthetics. “Intro” fits that earlier style, remaining more open and soaring in the way things like Before The Dawn did, while “Midnight City” is almost definitely the best pop song that he’s put out to date, and of the two I don’t think you’ll find too many people that will disagree with me when I say that, at least on a face value, “Midnight City” seems more compelling. What do you think of the new tracks and what they signify for where he’s headed?

WILL: I’d definitely agree with you about “Midnight City.” To me it’s at once quintessential M83 — combining the pop structure of Saturdays with the monolithic expansiveness and weight of earlier work while still adding something identifiably new. If “Midnight City” is anything to go by, I think we can expect Gonzalez’s voice to open up a whole lot. It’s not an aspect of M83 I thought needed a change as Morgan Kibby and Gonzalez’s whisper-sing approach totally sufficed, but with this new more throaty and confident style I think the vocal aspect might become a bit more affecting. The best vocalists are able to push the emotional beats of a song and “Midnight City” definitely has that dynamic working for it, whereas before Gonzalez would let his instrumental power do the work. That could be an interesting development to keep track of. We also get to see some saxophone work, which is a new addition to the arrangement pallet. “Intro” is an interesting case because it’s structured more around the post-rock build and release dynamic of Before the Dawn, and while it is pegged as an intro, I wonder if it points toward more of a reliance on older and more refined strengths and ideas. I think Gonzalez has definitely earned the right to do that by his fifth record. Do you think he’s making a play for a larger audience with something as pop driven as “Midnight City”? What do you think of the new vocal style?

COLIN: Well, I’m not sure if it was necessarily “a play” toward a bigger audience, but it’s certainly massive in a way that earlier stuff wasn’t. The focus here isn’t on creating atmosphere as much as it is on making huge hooks, and it comes out brilliantly. He’s made one of the best pop songs in recent memory, and though I don’t think it was intentional, this should have a much larger reach than previous material. I think that has a lot to do with the way that he’s finally willing to open up his voice. It’s not that it sounded like he didn’t care before, but with this new material, the passion behind it is very obvious. I don’t think that this is the material that’ll make him blow up necessarily, but it’s an incredible achievement if only because it is such a marked shift in the way that he approaches the construction of songs. It’ll certainly be interesting to see where he takes it from here.

For more on “where he takes it from here,” check out our review of Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming.

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