Review: M83 - Hurry Up, We're Dreaming

To say Anthony Gonzales, aka M83,’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming – a double LP allegedly crafted in some ineffable light of Life, Art and Growth; bearing the shadows of Nostalgia, Change and Impermanence; and cast upon the Extraterrestrial Landscapes of the Surrealist Subconscious – is for everybody would no doubt be as ridiculous as it sounds a gross overstatement. But, to call it pretentiously French a beyond-lofty project with a near-inescapable event horizon seems like an apt summation. Try calling it anything else. In fact, try not calling it at all – just turn your back and ignore it; I dare you. You’d do just as well trying to approach it non-critically.

The truth is, any approach is doomed from the very get-go. Resistance is futile. Its gravity, even if of the anti- variety, is palpable for reasons you’ll soon inevitably come to know. So buckle up, because there’s going to be a ride, and whether or not its rock will suffice to match its roll is, by its own design, all that’s left to discuss.

As a fan of M83’s previous work, I’m no stranger to his songwriting style and trademark dramatics. This apparently shy but unmistakably talented arty French producer and songwriter has long had a gift for the evocative, while bordering the overwrought. This is not music for the subtly inclined; this is urgency for the young, hungry, tempestuous and seemingly invincible. His signature sound has been known to marry the effect-drenched lushness of shoegaze, the stormily emotive landscapes and volatile dynamics of post-rock, an acid-washed jean jacket’s worth of Molly-Ringwaldian ‘80s reminiscence, and many manic fistpumps full of slick danceable Euro Disco Electro beats.

Altogether, the result is typically part silent-film score (of the urban time-lapsed variety), part danceable 80s nostalgia, part shoegaze emo psychodrama, part electropop hipsteralia, and part dream-infused space-rock – a combination uniquely well suited for the peaks and valleys of both pubescent love and long-term space voyages to distant galaxies, heralding both triumph and loss yet unmatched in the cumulative history of universe and humanity!!

This is not hyperbole. This is without exaggeration M83’s typical sound on a normal day.

Now add the double album ambitious setup described above, and this is what we’re walking into here. One can already understand any hesitation to take this album seriously. Granted, dramatic music and epic ambition does not always signify inflated humorless egos. Sometimes it’s a viable and cathartic outlet for an otherwise introverted, quiet soul who is quite self-aware but nonetheless needs the world to feel how much and how deeply s/he feeeeels. But, humility is good and hype is a disappointment, so when the artist himself describes the endeavor as “very, very, very epic,” and when the almighty Pitchfork, whose 9.1 rating goes on to agree and even claim the “triple very” is, if anything, modest, there’s little room left for the avid music fan and double-album-aficionado to have anything but a reactionary response.

Indeed, by these very mentions, it’d be almost impossible to maintain a Swiss neutrality here. Instead, it becomes increasingly apparently why in one way or another, you must eventually take a side, and you must own it. To do so is part of rock’s rich history; it’s always been this way. The bigger the ambitions, the greater the risks: We all remember what happened to Guns N Roses and the hoards of other rockers n rollers who just got way too big and carried away and completely jumped the shark – not because they got popular, but because their egos and shticks grew faster and larger than their libraries of pure love labor. Their earlier tunes, full of visceral power, showcased the ripest of fruits sprung from the most primal calls to rock, having come up in their gardens of youth, not in their arid arenas of adulthood. And so too they grew: strong, fast and with vigor – earnestly, honestly, non-self-consciously. Then, of course, after far too much fussing and pruning, after so many seasons and studio sessions, would come the inevitable weakening and withering – the body that remembers youth and yearns to reclaim it but cannot, better able to project pressure-cooked artifice than pure organic artistry.

The question is, Is M83, an already established artist in theatrical rock, now on that histrionic continuum? Or do those clichés of grandiosity not apply to him? Has he somehow transcended all of that?

On the one hand, there’s an undeniable epicness to any mid-career double-album endeavor, whereupon an artiste feels inclined to grow and redefine and prove something to the world. This album is precisely such an endeavor and is as a result his most ambitious to date: The lengthy “Intro” features prominent, forward-mixed and confident vocals for the first time in his career, foreshadowing the branching-out to come. But it also recalls familiar synth-rich ambience and noisier post-rock sounds, letting listeners know it’s still him and that this wild excursion will not be a total departure. The two following groove-heavy and immediately catchy tracks, “Midnight City” (the first single from this release) and “Reunion” (which ought to be the second release and prompts me to give a quick shout-out to a little-known but excellent band called Violens), are the highest point of this album and punch the listening experience into a higher gear, accelerating hard and fast (perhaps too hard and too fast), reminding the more dance-oriented, less drone-prone M83 fans what they most love about his hooky sound. These two songs have the potential to even draw in some new fans and make converts of the skeptical. Verily, Hurry Up compels these lovers of the upbeat to hurry up and keep listening... only to make them “Wait”... through myriad interludes, ambient segues and slow Pink-Floyd-like acoustic-psychedelic jams (which are solid, if a bit anticlimactic and confusing in context) … even through I-shit-ye-not psychotropic ho-downs in shamanistic playgrounds wherein children wax poetic about magical frogs who turn worlds inside out. Such silliness abounds, while promising “Soon, My Friends.”

Not soon enough, I say: The album does present a handful of other keepers, especially if you like classic M83 (“This Bright Flash”),‘80s B-sides (“Claudia Lewis”, “OK Pal”), or both (“New Map”, “Steve McQueen”), retaining the catchy, fun and even powerful moments. And in those moments, M83 ups the bar on songwriting and editing, showing a maturing boldness, growing experimentalism and, yes, even a subtlety, however relative that term might be in this sphere. However, due to overindulgence (“My Tears Are Becoming A Sea” -- indeed) and unessential fluff and filler -- aye, the risk and the rub all too often packed in the double album format: this album has it therein! -- the listener may well be left preferring a more tightly edited, solid single album, which can be just as much a memorable journey, even more so, than the currently overstayed welcome...

...which brings me to “but on the other hand”: When and how do “epic” and “bloated” conflate? It is a legitimate question, and while not everyone likes their cup of tea overstated and overblown, to each, her own. Personally, this album feels like growth but in predictably over-the-top and unfocused directions, trying to be too many things at once, while ironically not being enough of anything, much less everything. I love the songs I love, but again, there seems little point to sacrifice what could’ve been one album full of solid tracks for a virtuosic endeavor of theme that requires more buffer and ballast than gravity and electricity. I’ll admit I often feel this way about most double albums, and even so, the seemingly unessential tracks have begun to grow on me as they can do in such projects. Also, I must admit there is a good chance this listening experience was designed for state-of-the-art sound systems, laser lights, and truckloads of psychotropics to which I simply don’t enjoy the liberty of access, and that my being within reach of M83’s target dem here would require a Delorean, some Libyans and much caution thrown to the wind (lest we unravel the space-time continuum altogether).  

What is undeniable here is that this album, and moreover, M83, is a force, that will carve its place and niche. Love it or hate it, you will probably come to know it. It will open for other established epic acts in stadiums and arenas worldwide (as it already has -- see: Depeche Mode; The Killers), working toward eventually headlining them. And that in itself is a lot in today’s sea of laptop virtuosos, where a sea of bands and voices compete in an ever-denser web of has-beens, still-are’s and never-will-be’s for our ever-fleeting, forever-distracted nanosecond of attention and interest.

If nostalgia is innocent beauty tinged with self-pitying loss and regret, the fact that this album and artist seeks it out speaks worlds. Truly, who among us lacks feelings toward, opinions on, or exposure to, Mellon Collie & The Infinite Sadness? The White Album? The Wall? And that is precisely the point. Maybe achieving a nostalgic degree of notoriety and success while pitching itself as part of The Canon and being accepted as such is the greatest victory one can muster at this stage in the game.

So – with its keyed-up dramatics and turbulently evocative, perhaps even emotionally manipulative, over-the-top, shoegaze-dreampop luster, is it hard to take M83 as an artist, much less Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming as an album (a “Hey, Look At Me, Double Your Time and Dollars, I’m Worth It, Promise” album), seriously? Well, Dear Listener, that is why we come to you, as Morpheus unto Neo, hands outstretched, with pills Red and Blue, for The Decider is Ultimately You. So take a listen and leave a comment; we’d love to hear what You think.

Oh -- and if you feel this review is about twice as long and about five times as dramatic as it needs to be, well, rest assured, Dear Readers: This is not lost on us. Here’s to hoping you take healthy heaps of irony, meta(phoric) melodrama, wordplay and humor with your musical nerdery.