Review Summary: Synth giant M83 (aka Anthony Gonzalez) has released a strong contender for album of the year.
For nearly a decade, the pieces have been in place for Anthony Gonzalez’s one-man act M83 to make a truly outstanding album, but it’s still a wonderful surprise to hear him do it. On 2003 critic’s pick Dead Cities, Red Seas, and Lost Ghosts Gonzalez and fellow Frenchman Nicolas Fromageau repurposed MBV-style shoegaze as sprawling synthesizer-driven cyborg pop. After Fromageau departed, Gonzalez added more guitar and cinematic flair on 2005’s Before the Dawn Heals Us then showed a penchant for concision and pop gooiness on 2008’s Saturdays = Youth. As encouraging as this evolution has been, few could have expected the 29-year old to combine all of these elements as completely and seamlessly as he has on Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, a double album of stunning creative vision, vibrancy, and execution.
In interviews, Gonzalez boldly proclaimed Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming was the “ambitious and epic soundtrack for a movie in [his] head.” As grandiose as that might sound, it turns out he was spot on --- when the album plays, you can practically see it on the widescreen. With each side clocking in around 35 minutes, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming is the rare double album that remains majestic without ever feeling cumbersome or overwrought. Gonzalez blends the complexities of vast, synthetic soundscapes with sugary pop hedonism, without sacrificing the benefits of either. It will come to be viewed as Gonzalez’s definitive statement not because of its length or grand conceptual scope, but instead for its plentiful hooks, immaculate production, and stellar songwriting. It’s the finest work of Gonzalez’s impressive career and a strong contender for album of the year.
There are loads of stand out moments on this album --- the epic saxophone solo at the end of “Midnight City,” the eider-down tenderness of “Wait’s” softly strummed intro, and the conclusion of “New Map” when a Broken Social Scene-like montage of flutes, saxophones and jazzy high hats cuts away and there’s nothing left but a bank of ghostly voices --- you suddenly realize they’ve been there the whole time as ambient background, buried beneath the blanket of sounds. All of M83’s songs can be peeled back like this, revealing layer after layer of melodic beauty.
Similar to M83’s last two albums, there are voices speaking throughout Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, like snippets of character dialogue from Gonzalez’s private flick. “My body is like a lightning rod” whispers a woman on “Reunion” then later on promises: “In the back of your parked car/I could build a fort and play all day…/I could stay here forever.” There’s juxtaposition within her words and sultry voice that is central to M83’s je ne sais quoi --- this odd interplay between childlike innocence and coming-of-age sensuality.
It took Gonzalez a few albums to write M83’s first bona fide anthem “Don’t Save Us From the Flames” (from Before the Dawn Heals Us) but on Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, he easily does it half a dozen times or so, almost as if he’s cracked the genetic code to the perfect pop song. Side one’s opening triad of “Intro,” “Midnight City,” and “Reunion” hits serotonin centers like a jab-hook-uppercut combination and is easily the strongest three song sequence on any album released this year. Side two’s “New Map” and “OK Pal” aren’t far behind. Both records are superbly sequenced, with dive bomb adrenaline-rush beginnings, tightly focused mid-sections, and majestically soft glides back to earth, like two world class ski jumps taken back to back.
Like the rest of M83’s catalog, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming heavily references and reveres the sounds of the 1980’s. A glittering synth hook on “OK Pal” duplicates the unforgettable shower of keyboards that begins Madonna’s “Lucky Star,” while “Reunion” lifts its big chord changes and skittering percussion straight from Peter Gabriel’s “Red Rain.” Highlight “Claudia Lewis” is an amalgamation of every Regan-era pop lick you can imagine, borrowing Phil Collins’ drum fills from Invisible Touch-era Genesis, the bass line breakdown from “You Can Call Me Al,” and yearning synthesizer flourishes from a half dozen John Hughes’ film soundtracks.
Recycling sounds from the 80’s has been all the rage in indie music circles for some time now, but it’s usually done with a heavy dose of irony. It’s easy to smirk at the slick horns on Destroyer’s Kaputt, the campy synths on Daft Punk’s Tron Soundtrack or the Bananarama sample on Girl Talk’s latest record because these artists are repurposing the schmaltz inside hip, indie constructs. But with Gonzalez, it’s different --- he so utterly commits to these borrowed sounds that his performance never feels anything less than earnest. I believe he truly shares the same ethe that inspired many of his New Wave and synth pop predecessors three decades ago --- that of art enhanced by technology and rebellion against the mundane, not to mention sweeping romance. It allows Gonzalez to deftly capture synth pop’s optimism and wide-eyed wonder while accruing very little of its mawkish baggage and datedness. It’s not so much a creative aesthetic he’s shooting for but a genuine expression of feeling.
Perhaps the essence of Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming can be found in “Raconte-Moi Une Histoire” (French for “tell me a story”). A five-year old girl recounts her experience with what you can only assume are psychotropic frogs --- a fitting image to accompany the sound of M83 exploding in her (and your) mind. The song is half Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole fairy tale and half red-pill/blue pill drug trip in which “your mommy suddenly becomes your daddy and everything looks like a giant cupcake.” With no verse or chorus to speak of, it would almost be a throwaway song if the melody weren’t so utterly addictive.
But after the initial weirdness and whimsy dissipate, you experience something far deeper. An innocence unfurls with each tidal wave of keyboards as the child narrator asks without guile or pretense: “Do you want to play with me?/ We would be hundreds, thousands, millions/ The biggest group of friends the world has ever seen/ Jumping and laughing forever/ It would be great, right?” You realize that she’s not talking about frogs anymore, she’s talking about us --- the human race. It’s the sort of heart-on-sleeve sentiment of Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming that leaves you smiling. It would be great to have this kind of dream and even to make it a reality. Best of all, Gonzalez does it.
This is music made for huge, wide open spaces. I first fell in love with the album outdoors while walking across a grassy field with headphones on, and for a moment, it made me feel so alive it seemed as though my heart might burst. Everything just felt bigger and more intense, almost cinematic. In that moment, rather than being M83’s story, it had become a personal soundtrack to the movie in my head. Gonzalez is creating songs that are both deeply personal to him and imminently relatable for his audience, one of the greatest skills a musician can possess. The ease and sureness with which M83 realizes excellence on Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming is so matter-of-fact that you’re surprised Gonzalez hasn’t done it sooner. I can’t wait to see where he goes from here and how he’ll do it again.
---streaming at http://blog.urbanoutfitters.com/features/m83