Monday, April 14, 2008

Record Review: M83: Saturdays=Youth

French electronic maestro Anthony Gonzalez releases his fifth album, a collection of dense, dramatic new wave anthems.

Rating: 4/5

One of the most unsettling and shudder-worthy commercials on television may be that Taco Bell advertisement (for the cheesy melt or whatever it is) with Modern English’s “Melt With You” playing in the background. The commercial is, well, just kinda gross, which is a shame, because the song playing behind this rather disconcerting scene is a pop treasure. New wave classics like “Melt With You” aren’t just nice little amusing-because-they’re-cheesy artifacts from the Reagan years, but rather timeless and endlessly enjoyable gems, even if the fashion fads of the same era haven’t aged quite so well.

M83 mastermind Anthony Gonzalez apparently agrees, stating in a recent interview, “[F]or my part I consider the 80s in a really serious way, and there is no irony at all in my musical relation to the 80s. So yeah, I really can cry when I listen to a Kate Bush song or Simple Minds." I can’t say I ever cried listening to Simple Minds, but I feel like Mr. Gonzalez and I are basically on the same page here. Fortunately for the music-listening public, one of us went into the studio and channeled his affection for the decade of excess into Saturdays=Youth, a gigantic-sounding album packed with layered, skyscraping synthesizers, soaring, rapturous choruses, and arena-sized drums. That is, for M83 in 2008, Saturdays = new wave.

The album does, though, recall M83’s previous work to some extent. S=Y certainly features the same sort of dense, vast arrangements as Dead Cities, Red Seas, and Lost Ghosts and Before the Dawn Heals Us. However, between the absence of the MBV guitars that characterized these two albums and a much more structured and restricted approach, Youth marks a clear shift for M83. Neither of M83’s last two proper records featured songs so packed with vocals or ones so centered upon hooks, bridges, and the confines of the orthodox pop song.

This confinement could have easily been the make-or-break point for many fans, but as it turns out, it's the record's solidity and drama that will test the listener's patience. M83 thrived on both Dead Cities and Before the Dawn by balancing texture and atmosphere with structured songcraft, creating songs that act as both lush, aesthetically appealing electronic soundscapes and precisely arranged pop songs. Both with and without one-time collaborator Nicolas Fromageau, Gonzalez gave his compositions room to breathe and glide while simultaneously building toward the next inevitable climax. Particularly on Dead Cities, M83 masterfully balanced density and spaciousness, offering an abundance of jam-packed crescendos but taking the foot off the gas pedal when needed to avoid reaching the saturation point.

Saturdays=Youth, on the other hand, at times nearly collapses beneath the weight of its relentless maximalism. While Before the Dawn found M83 moving toward the more structured, vocal-driven approach found on Youth, that record featured valuable transitional pieces like “I Guess I’m Floating” and “Slight Night Shiver.” On Youth, the nonstop drama of the string of tracks from “Kim and Jessie” through “Highway of Endless Dreams” is nearly suffocating. Eventually, Gonzalez reels things back a little, but he would have been well-advised to intersperse the earlier more loaded moments with some quieter pit stops, mix in material along the lines of the low-key ambient pieces that comprised last year’s underrated Digital Shades, Volume 1, rather than attempt to mold every track into the greatest new wave anthem ever written.

Why is this album so good nonetheless? As claustrophobically dramatic as the record may be, more often than not, M83 comes damn near close to reaching the fantastic heights for which he strives. S=Y offers a multitude of memorable melodies, several sung (beautifully) by guest vocalist Morgan Kibby, and, to put it plainly, fully showcases Gonzalez’s impeccable ability to write wonderful new wave tunes. Youth’s more traditionally structured songs lack some of the unpredictability of M83’s previous work, yet “Kim and Jessie,” “Skin of the Night,” and “Up!” are hardly less euphoric, infectious, or thrilling for the verse-chorus-verse configuration, and though hard to swallow all in one bite, are irresistible when singled out. Essentially, Youth succeeds because, in the world of new wave, a collection of strong “Rio” disciples will always excuse questionable sequencing.

Furthermore, Gonzalez does occasionally unleash himself from the confines of the more restrictive song designs, particularly on lead single and album centerpiece “Couleurs.” On the eight-and-a-half-minute marathon, Gonzalez begins with a simple chord progression but constantly adds new components to the mix, seamlessly tossing the right ingredient in the pot at just the right time. He pulls in the reins briefly during the song’s third quarter, but this only sweetens the subsequent symphonic rush. The unstoppably momentous epic stands alongside “Unrecorded” and “Don’t Save Us From the Flames” as M83’s best, and more than anything else on Saturdays=Youth testifies to Gonzalez’s compositional genius.

This will likely be a hit-or-miss affair for most fans (M83 or otherwise), and you’ll likely realize your love or hatred toward the album after a mere listen or two. M83’s previous albums were already over-the-top, and Saturdays=Youth only ups the ante. Even as a fan of the album, I can barely listen to the spoken word goth poetry in the middle of “Graveyard Girl.” Still, M83 asks you to suspend your disbelief for a little while, to lose yourself in the album’s glorious ‘80s nostalgia, to face the Taco Bell-type cheesiness and melodrama with seriousness and willingness, to throw your fist in the air while “Don’t You Forget About Me” plays behind you, and, for good reason, love every minute of it.

M83 - Couleurs

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