In Brief: M83 asks a lot of the listener with this sometimes uneven 2-disc set, but digging for the thematic parallels and the strongest climactic moments is certainly a delightful task.
I read about this band called M83. They’re a very indie band. But they’re also very special. You can only find them in Southern France, so far away from the American mainstream. But if you find them, and if you hear them, your iTunes library and/or vinyl collection can change FOREVER. If you give their new album a listen, you can feel your dreams changing. And your perception of music, also. Modern becomes retro, and retro becomes modern. And your favorite Tears for Fears songs suddenly become Brian Eno songs. And everything sounds like a bizarre dream about what Animal Collective might have sounded like in the 80s. And yet you keep listening, and listening, and listening to their album. Nothing is ever quite the same, really.
And after you’ve finished listening to Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, it’s time to dream you’re in M83 yourself! It’s very funny to be a member of M83. You can dive into the depths of mellow ambient music, and cross a vast ocean of synthesizers. And you can dance to new wave beats all the time, and everywhere! Do you wanna play with me? We can be a whole group of hipsters – I mean, a whole group of visionaries! Dreaming about boats, dreaming about trains, exploring faraway lands, swimming in a reflective sea of massive sounds! We would be hundreds, thousands… millions! The biggest indie group the world has EVER seen, dancing and dreaming FOREVER. It would be great, right?
(Alright, alright, I’m kidding around with you guys just for the sake of spoofing one of the more mystifying tracks on this expansive, immersive, and strangely addictive album. M83 is one of those rare bands who can take an array of sounds that we might define today as synthetic, unnatural, or cold and calculated, and use them to explore an experience as uniquely human as having dreams. I’m not talking about the “What do you want to do with your life before you die?” kind, though many who listen to M83 are likely prone to having fanciful daydreams about far-flung travel destinations that are on their personal bucket lists. No, I’m talking about the little snippets of memory that come together in your brain when you’re actually asleep, sometimes creating entire fictional worlds that only make sense to you at the time, and sometimes only creating little snippets or vignettes that are beautiful in their own right, but that you struggle to recall the details of once you awake. If you’ve ever had that reaction to an album by Sigur Rós, then you might find a lot to love here, assuming you’re OK with the kind of rubbery beats and yelpy vocals that you might hear on an album by 80s revivalists such as Empire of the Sun. M83 occupies its own weird space between the two worlds, and at first it might seem odd to have the dreamy sonic collages butting up against the grabby, up-tempo synthpop material. Yet it’s all stitched together so well that it becomes easy to love once you get over the inherent kitchiness of it. The best part is that despite playing with sounds that might seem dated or throwaway, M83’s given us something memorable to puzzle over in the form of a two-disc monolith, one which begs the question about who exactly is doing the dreaming, whether it’s the same individual all the way through, an amalgamation of several different subconscious minds, or whether there’s some sort of defining character to each of the two discs that necessitates keeping them as separate but similar entities. I tend to lean towards the latter – all of the music here could technically fit on a single CD, but breaking it up into two halves with an optional intermission puts focus on a strange sort of symmetry in between the two. It’s hard to explain that without discussing the various and sundry musical compositions on this album, so let’s dive into the first disc and see what we come up with.)
Intro tracks are usually there to get you warmed up for the first full song to follow, so M83 might be selling themselves a bit short by calling their opening track this when it sprawls out for over five minutes and can be considered a song in its own right. With its pulsing synths, its excited cries of “We carry on, carry on!”, and the delightfully strange guest vocals of American singer-songwriter Zola Jesus (what a name!), it definitely sets the template for the epic aspirations of the entire album. The weird thing is that, from its dreamy, whispered opening verse (which culminates in the intriguing line “We were you before you even existed”) to the choir of voices that takes it for a victory lap at the end, the song feels more like a conclusion than an introduction. You could stick it at the end of the album, and most listeners would be none the wiser. Am I just imagining this, or did M83 truly intend to start with the end of the story?
2. Midnight City
If you had to pick one track out of the twenty-two available to start with, I’d offer you this one. With its sharp, yelping synth hook (which, as it turns out, is the heavily modified sound of a human voice), it’s the most instantly grabby thing on the record. With its decidedly retro beat and that synth sample that repeats approximately fifty thousand times, you’ll either love it or hate it pretty quickly. I fall into the former camp, because it’s got that whole “1980s vision of the future” vibe to it, the thing you could easily use as a soundtrack to some science fiction story’s hovercraft race. Lyrically, there isn’t a whole lot to it, since most of the song simply repeats, “Waiting in the car/Waiting for a ride in the dark.” Like many moments on Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, the appeal is less in the words themselves and more in how Anthony Gonzalez stretches out even the most mundane of words into these wailing, emotional moments. “The city is my church!”, he proclaims. “It wraps me in its blinding twilight!” Tack on a sax solo to close out the song, which seems to be deliberately trying so hard to buck our modern notions of what’s cool that it somehow wraps right back around to become cool again, and you’ve got yourself one of the best 80s songs of 2011.
A much more upbeat rhythm kicks in here, for a song that aspires to gallop across the galaxy with its starry explosions of keyboards and its echoing layered vocals. It’s the kind of thing that could have been a pop hit in another decade if it weren’t so… I don’t know, blurry? Trying to make out half of Gonzalez’s words here is nigh impossible, but he sure sounds passionate about something. The emotional release contained in a chorus of nothing but “Oh”s is quite palpable. Reading the lyrics, it becomes apparent that he’s anticipating a unification of souls separated by time and space, and the cataclysmic collision between the two of them could well birth new galaxies, from all the energy he’s putting into it. I may have liked the song better before pausing to analyze the whispered words provided by a female voice midway through the song, which takes the star-crossed love story from something fantastic to something a bit too detailed to take seriously: “My body is like a lightning rod/Capsize me and drown me in your bay/A shiver of want, always/ When you are on the tip of my tongue/In the back of your parked car.” Sheesh, I’m starting to feel like I’m gonna be charged $2.99 for the first minute and 99 cents for each additional minute that I spent listening to this! All kidding aside, it is one of the more musically compelling tracks on the album, so I still have to give it high marks.
4. Where the Boats Go
The long, sustained, ambient chords that float through this brief instrumental track almost sound like they’re leading into a synthpop take on U2‘s “Where the Streets Have No Name”. But then the weather suddenly calms and for a few brief seconds, it’s a tranquil piano piece. And then it ends. I feel like I just woke up from one of those dreams that I would have liked to keep dreaming for a while longer.
The project’s first ballad, which sprawls out right in the dead center of disc one, felt at first like it was bringing the album to a premature, screeching halt. Even for a band that excels at warm abiance, it seemed surprisingly minimal at first, just a faint acoustic guitar strum and the occasional blip of a synthesized keyboard note to guide the melody, while lyrics are parceled out slowly, in as miserly a manner as possible: “Send… your… dreams… where nobody hiiiiiides… Give… your… tears… to the tiiiiide.” It’s about as impressionistic as the “full-length” songs on this project get, but it’s also one of the most live-band oriented, gradually building up to a beautiful climax of warm, glowing horns and crashing drums (I mean the live, acoustic kind). The chorus, if you could call it that, is just a two-word mantra that sounds more weepy and despairing the more Gonzalez repeats it: “No time!” It’s an interesting pause for reflection in the midst of an album that largely opts for a “wall of sound” approach, and I’ve grown to appreciate its simple melody and slow-burning climax a great deal since my initially indifferent reaction to it.
6. Raconte-Moi Une Histoire
Here we have a track that is bound to be divisive, yet at the same time it’s rather iconic for M83 and for this album in particular. A young girl (or at least I’m assuming it’s a girl; hard to tell when they’re so little) narrates a cute little story in which she tells you about a magical frog that, when touched, gives you all sorts of bizarre visions before turning you into a frog yourself. (This is the track that I was parodying at the beginning of my review.) Taken at face value, it adds an element of innocence to the album, just a bit of playful nonsense from the mind of a child who wishes the whole world could be a bunch of frogs, jumping and swimming and laughing together. But the peppy, repetitive, trancelike beat makes me think of more unfortunate connotations. I’ve learned from past mistakes, so I won’t accuse M83 of using or promoting illicit substances here. But the idea of it, as well as the general repetitiveness of this track (it drags on for a good minute or two more after the girl finishes her story), can make it a bit of a chore for me to get through even though I appreciate the wide-eyed sense of wonder that I’m choosing to believe was the intent behind it.
7. Train to Pluton
Here we fade into another brief instrumental track, really just the warbling of synths against the comfortingly familiar sound of a train rambling along its tracks. I’m noticing a theme of travel in some of these little connecting pieces (as well as the mention of cars in “Midnight City” and “Reunion”) that I hadn’t really thought much about until now. Is the train actually headed to Pluto? Or a deep space radar in the Ukraine? Or just a small village in Romania? Is it not a train at all, but a French missile instead? Sometimes Wikipedia can’t give me all the answers, I guess.
8. Claudia Lewis
This song has several elements in common with both “Midnight City” and “Renunion”. The warped vocal samples in its opening definitely remind me of the former, though they’re not nearly as prominent and they don’t persist throughout the song. A lot of excited “Oh”s and a repeating synth loop (quite a catchy one, too) stand in the place of an actual chorus. And instead of a saxophone, the decidedly un-trendy instrument highlighted here is the slap bass, which is quite noticeable throughout the songs, even bursting out at a few points where it threatens to become a full-fledged solo. The song veers between a rubbery, almost dorky new wave beat and a surprising, refreshing percussion breakdown that pops out unexpectedly in the bridge. During that breakdown, there’s a keyboard absolutely going nuts, giving me visions of one of those neon-colored music videos from the 80s where some excited metrosexual band member is just having a field day on his keytar. This is all quite a blast despite how easy it is to make fun of. The lyrics don’t make it any less silly, dreaming of a distant future twenty million years from now, as Gonzalez longs to bring a special cosmic lover aboard his spaceship for a good time. Alrighty, then. I guess I should be glad that a quick Google search for “Claudia Lewis” doesn’t seem to turn up anyone famous by that name. It’s better off if I can believe this fantasy is about an imaginary person.
9. This Bright Flash
I thought at first that this intense little interlude, which runs for two minutes and change, was just here to give a drummer the chance to go bonkers (which he does, and it’s awesome). But leading up to it and briefly echoing from its climax, there are barely audible lyrics, just a shadow of a thought that nonetheless hints at the nature of its destructive force: “I killed all the rainbows and the species”. And just when you think it’s calming down, the noise gets louder and harsher and then is suddenly cut off, leaving nothing but jarring silence.
10. When Will You Come Home?
Like a light of a distant sun faintly glowing in an otherwise dark sky, this song quietly glows with a solemn, unformed melody. It’s pure ambiance that doesn’t really seem to build or go anywhere, just a short tone poem leading into the first disc’s closing thought.
11. Soon, My Friend
That closing thought is a beautiful one, a moment which is undoubtedly going to be a lot of listeners’ favorite moment on the album. As a string and horn section slowly swells up, an instrument that sounds a bit like a harpsichord (or perhaps the electronic approximation of one) weaves a magical tapestry behind Gonalez’s killer vocal melody as he slowly sings “I’ll be yours… someday.” (Or is it “Sunday”? Hard to tell, but I’m gonna go with “Someday”, as the uncertain date gives it far more resonance.) This repeated thought becomes a tearful climax, and I can’t help but fall in love with it while simultaneously feeling a bit cheated, since it sounds like an orphaned ending to a long-lost favorite song. I’m sure that it must have a greater meaning in context, but since the previous two tracks have been largely instrumental, I can’t really figure out where this heartfelt moment belongs in the narrative. This being the language of dreams and all, it’s entirely possible that I’m expecting the wrong thing, but still, there’s that feeling of wanting to go back to sleep and experience that dream in full technicolor, rather than just getting a teasing glimpse of it as we do here.
12. My Tears Are Becoming a Sea
The second disc opens with another little snippet that works well enough as an intro to a separate body of songs, but when taken directly after disc one, it starts to bug me that we’re on our fourth track in a row that doesn’t quite feel like a fully formed song. The starry glow that opens the song and the crashing drums as it hits its climax seem familiar at this point, like the ideas have been better explored in more robust songs on the same album. Gonzalez has a decent enough ability to say a lot with few words, and once again his language of drifting stars and planets works as a metaphor for two people separated by time and space longing to be together. But when the lyrics conclude with the fragmented thought “I’m on my way… I’m on… I’m on…”, I start to feel like the emotion with which the words are sung is starting to matter more than choosing those words carefully.
13. New Map
This is almost where I feel the second disc should have started, since it just might be the most fully formed and satisfying song on the entire album. However, there’s a method to the madness, and I think it’s no coincidence that this, arguably the catchiest track on disc two, is position in exactly the same place as “Midnight City” was on disc one. The drums kick in within the first few seconds and then it’s a thrilling ride similar to “This Bright Flash” (I get the drum patterns from the two confused at times, actually), but with hopeful lyrics that are all about beginning to explore something new and exciting. The song breaks for a few calm moments, giving the synths and bass and Gonzalez’s vocals ample opportunity to echo off into the distance. Despite how exciting the wall of sound is when the song really gets going, I think my favorite part is the vamp, where the drums and some accompanying finger snaps go into this neat little groove accompanied by (obviously keyboard-approximated) flutes and a saxophone. It gives the song a nice little “victory lap” when it was already pretty awesome to begin with.
14. OK Pal
Another one of those tracks that will fall rather quickly into “love it or hate it” territory, depending on what you think of the high-pitched (though not distorted in any way, from what I can make of it) vocal loop that kicks off the song and repeats throughout it many times. This one’s got an inherent “rubberiness” to it that makes it feel almost insipidly happy, particularly when it’s all about how a guy feels when he’s up close and personal with his girl. (Don’t ask what that has to do with the title, which strikes me as oddly sarcastic even though the song itself is light years away from that). It’s only when a spoken interlude shows up that the light bulb goes on and I realize that we’re looking at the reflected image of “Reunion” – it sounds like the same woman, and she’s got that same half-wide eyed, half-seductive tone as she assures the guy to ease into their shared dream. It’s more surreal than sultry in this case.
15. Another Wave From You
This two-minute track is another slow, synthetic build that backs away just as it seems to be hitting a plateau. Just as a keyboard melody begins to make its way out of the haze, Gonzales sleepy sings “I think I saw you there”, repeats it, and then the song humbly fades away, as if only briefly glimpsing someone in a crowd from a passing vehicle. Not much to comment on here other than the interesting fact that if you juxtapose the two discs, “Where the Boats Go” is this track’s counterpart, and that possibly gives “Wave” a double meaning here.
So this would be the long, drawn out ballad in the vein of “Wait”, right? Yes, exactly. This one starts with solo piano where “Wait” was more guitar-based, but it still has that same effect of reminding you that M83 can create a song with a fragile, human heart to it and then use the electronic stuff as a supporting character. I think that’s the idea here. Unfortunately when the synths do make their way into the song, the warm, fuzzy tone that Gonzalez uses is just a little too corny to work for me. This is coming from someone who thought a lot of the intentionally retro and kind of cheesy sounds elsewhere on the album were generally a lot of fun, so I figure I’m more lenient on this point than some listeners are likely to be. Maybe part of my problem is that the big, stargazing synth refrain comes too soon and feels like an unearned climax (in much the same way that a number of tracks on the last Sigur Rós album did). The song’s barely even started to state its point (since lyrics are once again beguilingly minimal here) before it breaks in with that huge, wordless refrain, and even tacking an angelic choir on top of it can’t quite make me respond to it the way M83 clearly wants me to. They’ve certainly started a good song lyrics – the couplet “It’s not goodbye, my only friend/Yesterday started over again” hints at all sorts of possibilities, but turns out to be an unresolved cliffhanger as the song just goes off into instrumental dreamland for the next several minutes. I get that a lot of the thoughts expressed on this album are little snippets of memories, and thus it’s silly of me to expect a full, coherent story to be told. Still, I can’t help but feel unfairly teased by this one.
17. Year One, One UFO
So right about now, you’d expect a long instrumental jam with a goofy story being told on top of it, right? Well, you’d be half right. The “instrumental jam” thing is definitely happening – and it’s one of the most delightful moments on the album, driven largely by the drums and the decidedly un-electronic choice of an acoustic guitar and bongos (!) while an electric guitar picks out a sunny, video-game melody that repeats as the piece’s main motif. With all of the fun little variations in the rhythm and the organic, escalating sense of euphoria, you’d almost forget it was the work of an electronic band if not for the little vocal sample that runs through it. Instead of telling a story, it just repeats two words over and over and over and over and OVER!!! to the point of insanity, made worse by the fact that you can’t really tell what those two words are. To me it sounds like “Sad! … Song! … Sad! … Song!”, but that wouldn’t really fit with the music in any way, and online lyric searches are turning up nothing, so I just have to deal with the fact that it’s probably pure gibberish through in there for sonic flavor. I wish they’d left it out. The track would be a total home run without the voice there as a distraction.
One of the album’s shortest but prettiest bits of ambiance shows up here, making you feel for a mere minute and twenty seconds like you’ve stepped into a secret garden, surrounding by exotic flowers and a babbling brook and insects and birds happily chirping away. A simple but lovely synth melody repeats on top of it all.
19. Steve McQueen
It’s funny; I’ve compared other tracks on the album to futuristic car races and other modes of vehicular transport, and along comes a song that is actually named for a famed actor and race car driver. I have no idea what it has to do with him beyond the name, but then, I had no clue who “Claudia Lewis” was, and once again it’s interesting to note the symmetry (track eight on both discs is named after a person). There’s a lot of joy bursting forth from this song – it almost seems to shoot streams of silver and gold at the listener as its swirling synth melody and spiraling vocals burst forth from the speakers. Strangely, though, it doesn’t quite have the aggression that you’d expect from a song by such a name – a number of other tracks have excelled at that sense of forward motion, while this one, for all of its upbeat poppiness, keeps easing back into mid-tempo just as it seems to be getting revved up for a huge release. Coming this late in the album after so many other space-age pop songs that it could easily be confused with, this makes it unfortunately easy to overlook despite still being an enjoyable listen.
20. Echoes of Mine
Now this track… this is NOT an enjoyable listen. At least not for me. Guess I fell on the “hate it” side for once on one of those instant love/hate tracks. Again, the problem for me is an unearned climax. Despite all of its loud, euphoric aspirations (which are well-placed considering this song’s position as the last high point before the final comedown), to me this track just feels like a lot of one-note banging in the hopes of evoking a response where some actual effort to come up with an interesting melody might have helped a great deal. It’s the antithesis of “Year One, One UFO” in some ways – there are lots of words, but little inventiveness in the instrumental work, with the drummer just slowly slamming the cymbals again and again in between whatever some lady is babbling about in French. I’m sure those are nice bits of poetry, where the drums and synths back off to give her room to speak up (it goes through about three cycles of this, but it feels like the darn thing goes on FOREVER). Not understanding the French is not part of the problem, since this would have irritated me just as much in English, and I’d have welcomed a song sung by Gonzalez in what I’m assuming is his native language. In any language, this JUST. DOES. NOT. WORK.
21. Klaus I Love You
One last segue mercifully restores the balance between rhythm and tunefulness as a rather video game-like keyboard melody teams up with a robotic dance beat, fading in almost as if it were the reprise to some lost song that we never got to hear on disc one. Gonzalez is wailing in the background, and no words are provided, so I have no idea if it’s anything meaningful or just aesthetically pleasing vowel sounds. Man, I really wish this could have been developed into a full song.
Expecting a slow but epic finish? You’ll feel like it was a good hunch as the warm synths fade in at the beginning of this closing track, almost as if ushering you into some faraway throne room… only to fade away into silence, as an inexplicable gaping hole opens up in the middle of the song, during which only a low, pitch-shifting bass tone can be heard for a good thirty seconds. Then it fades back in and gets on with the actual song as if nothing had happened. What are you guys trying to do, make this song feel like a hidden track tacked on to itself? I just don’t get it. What we get in terms of lyrics to wrap up the story is compelling: “I’m the king of my own land/Facing tempests of dust, I’ll fight until the end/Creatures of my dreams raise up and dance with me/Now and forever I’m your king.” That’s as beautiful a place as I could hope for any dream to wind up. And I could certainly see why some would feel a bit weepy eyed as the grand, sweeping melody finally winds down into a meek piano piece, closing the album on a peaceful note. It feels so right, and yet M83 has stumbled and wavered a great deal throughout the last third or so of the record, so for me, that kind of dulls the impact.
What’s this… there’s another song hidden amidst this already generous offering of twenty-two tracks on two discs? Hmmm, perhaps this is the key to unlocking the entire album. After all, the song’s called “Mirror”. That’s a huge clue toward my theory about the two discs being intentionally sequenced to reflect one another. So let’s listen and see if this forms some sort of bridge between the two. As it turns out, it’s a nearly six-minute tribal jam session with percussion work that easily feels like it could have fit in on an early U2 album. There are no lyrics other than a repeated chant, which my best guess at deciphering tells me is saying, “Happy, happy, happy, no soul!” Well, that can’t be right. It’s fun, but if you were to actually play this track in between “Soon, My Friend” and “My Tears Are Becoming a Sea” (as suggested by the fact that the track was hidden between the folds of the album packaging), it would really take you out of the moment. So I’m not sure whether this has any thematic importance or whether it’s just a fun little Easter egg that they threw in there for those few geeky fans who will go the extra mile to find such things and then post them to YouTube for the rest of us dumb people to hear. Either way, that’s a clever way to hide something in a day and age where the idea of a “hidden track” is becoming more of a nuisance than a secret that’s actually fun to discover.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Midnight City $1.75
Where the Boats Go $.50
Raconte-Moi Une Histoire $.25
Train to Pluton $.25
Claudia Lewis $1.50
This Bright Flash $1
When Will You Come Home? $.25
Soon, My Friend $.75
My Tears Are Becoming a Sea $.50
New Map $2
OK Pal $1
Another Wave From You $0
Year One, One UFO $1.25
Steve McQueen $1
Echoes of Mine -$.25
Klaus I Love You $.50
Anthony Gonzalez: Lead vocals, guitars, keyboards, synthesizer, arrangements
Yann Gonzalez: Arrangements
Morgan Kibby: Backing vocals, keyboards, choral arrangements
Loïc Maurin: Drums, percussion
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.