It’s a problem of expectations. When I first heard M83′s Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts, I was blown away. I fell in love with Anthony Gonzalez and Nicolas Fromageau’s primary-color-shaded walls of melodic, ethereal-yet-visceral noise, reveling in it like I had Loveless back in my youth. It was (and is) awe-inspiring, majestically grand music, the kind of which gauzy, intricately detailed daydreams are made. I hoped against hope for years and years of more of the same.
Then Fromageau split, and Gonzalez came back pretty much on his own with Before the Dawn Heals Us, which, while it’s not a bad album — in fact, it’s quite good on its own merits — left me disappointed and stunned. The coruscating, swirling noise-rock was replaced, for the most part, with poppy/New Age-y electronics just this side of Tangerine Dream, mangled-English vocals, and occasional moments of utter brilliance (see the circular, terrifying “Car Chase Terror,” which evokes more fear in four minutes than two weeks’ worth of SciFi Channel B-grade horror flicks). I was left adrift, it felt like, left trying to fill the space left after Dead Cities ended. (Enter Ulrich Schnauss, but that’s another review entirely…)
With this year’s Saturdays=Youth, I’d clung to a vain hope that maybe the “old” M83 would resurface, that Gonzalez had decided all the vocal crap wasn’t his gig and he should stick to sculpting noise into improbably melodies. Nope. On the contrary, Saturdays=Youth takes the formula of Dawn and amps it up tenfold, with vocals on nearly every track (courtest of guest vocalist Morgan Kibby, of baroque-pop band The Romanovs, and Gonzalez himself), lots of pretty, retro-fied synths, and melodies so thick you could spread them on toast and call it breakfast. And it’s good, seriously; I find myself smiling just listening to it. It’s just not what I’d hoped for. It felt — at first, anyway — like a letdown.
Then I started listening closer to the words, and caught myself thinking about what the music dredged up in the back corners of my mind, and it all began to make sense. True to its title, Saturdays=Youth is an homage to the teenage years (specifically Gonzalez’s teenage years, obviously), when everything seems wide-open and new and amazing and important, even though you find out later in life that that’s not always the case. There’s a barefaced joy to all this, like Gonzalez is celebrating that period of his life, rose-colored raver glasses and all.
And true to M83 form, the whole thing comes off like a soundtrack, from the beautiful-yet-foreboding Mogwai-esque piano at the start of “You, Appearing” onward. Weirdly, what it makes me think, specifically (bear with me, here), is a kind of mishmash of River’s Edge and The Virgin Suicides, as directed by John Hughes with musical help from Angelo Badalamenti and, um, Kate Bush. No, really — I can’t help but listen to Kibby’s voice on tracks like “You, Appearing,” “Skin Of The Night,” “Too Late,” and “Up!” without thinking I’m listening to some lost collection of outtakes to The Sensual World, and closing track “Midnight Souls Still Remain,” in particular, could’ve come right off the Twin Peaks soundtrack.
Plus, there’s the overall ’80s vibe, with the synth-y drums, echoey keys, and unashamedly pretty melody lines; see “Kim & Jessie,” a straight-up pop-rocker, or “Skin Of The Night,” with its swooning, utterly romantic feel. “Graveyard Girl” has that whole devil-may-care thing going on beneath the shoegazer-pop instrumentation, sounding like a cross between Modern English and Mute labelmates Goldfrapp’s latest, with thumping drums, soaring vocals, and sublime melodies. Plus, the spoken aside about halfway through sounds like it could’ve come straight out of Winona Ryder’s mouth, so there’s that.
There’re hints of Dead Cities scattered around, to be sure, but even when they’re there, as on the eminently danceable “Couleurs,” their DNA’s been spliced liberally with ’80s synth-pop. On “Couleurs,” in fact, the sound resembles nothing so much as Depeche Mode or New Order with its darkly-tinged keys and cheesy electronic beats. (And yes, it works quite nicely.) “Highway of Endless Dreams” perhaps comes closest to Dead Cities, but by that point (or maybe Trembling Blue Stars with distortion pedals), heck, it doesn’t seem to matter.
The songs meander about the subjects of death, youth, and finding your place, all that teenage angst that sure as hell didn’t feel real fun when it hit the first time but is entertaining to think back on now. There’re ghosts, suicides, forbidden loves, and kids with clothes and haircuts about two decades out of date strewn all ’round, with the end result that M83′s Gonzalez has crafted what could be an impressive concept album about a death (deaths?) among a group of teenage friends back in the ’80s and the ripples the catastrophe causes.
Maybe. Honestly, I don’t want to know — if that’s not what this album’s about, I think I’ll choose to remain blissfully ignorant. Because when I look at it from this angle, Saturdays=Youth looks downright amazing.