In the 1970s, rock stars began to be dubbed dinosaurs not only because they were aging into previously unimagined ranges (over 30), but also because their every move seemed to shake the earth’s alignment. It wasn’t enough for their audiences to be massive or their shows to be pyrotechnic; the albums had to sound expensive, each a production involving a rotating timeclock of sound engineers and creative directors. Eventually, the era of Electric Light Orchestra, Yes, and Pink Floyd was dethroned because their blockbuster albums were seen as the sonic equivalent of a Versailles — unbridled opulence and pretention by a crowned royalty, one far too distanced from the realities of the oil crisis and the working class malaise that had once been at the root of rock to make anything palatable to their constituencies.
In 2011, a 30-year-old artist named Anthony Gonzalez in a 10-year-old outfit called M83 that few folks on the planet have even heard of can make an album that sounds even more massive than most of those records combined with an economical budget in keeping with the micro-community that Gonzalez keeps company with. Sure, M83 has toured with Depeche Mode in recent years, but Gonzalez is hardly as big a star as his music presupposes he is.
Since 2003’s Dead Cities, Red Seas, and Lost Ghosts, Gonzalez has primarily composed music designed to occupy the entire room. It’s dynamic range compression music. For all the earned negative press directed at the trend for the latter, Gonzalez has proven that this aesthetic can be used to an artist’s full advantage if he or she has the ideas and the melodic wit to sustain all the constant shouting. In M83’s case, Gonzalez hits overdrive on the power plant bass hums and cosmically crisp synths and pushes them forward with an unrelenting volume and tension that is the musical equivalent of stepping into the eye of a tornado.
That Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming is being touted as M83’s “epic” record might stupefy some. M83 is already indie’s Spielberg (if Spielberg had kept Truffaut on as a creative advisor throughout his career after Close Encounters). Many reviews of Gonzalez’s last effort, Saturdays=Youth arrived at a different referent, John Hughes, in light of the album’s apparent delight in the treasures of intersecting teen melodrama with (new) new romantic synthpop. But Gonzalez actually makes Hughes look like a Wayans brother in the way that he treats teenage alienation in the same way that evangelicals treat gay marriage — as a cataclysmic notion that could very well rip the entirety of spacetime apart.
Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming is as hyperbolic and over-the-top as one might imagine M83’s “epic” album to be. It’s a double album, for one thing. And though the entire span of the 2XLP could easily fit on a single CD, it’s narratively constructed to be a sprawling collection, two acts in competition with each other for the most thrills. Even the quieter pieces are intensified, as if each prickly piano note and every slender chord change could shatter the panes of ice beneath our feet and send us hurtling into the freezing water below. Prone to grand gestures on a tranquil day, M83 lose much of their impact on Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming by focusing too much on magnitude throughout and too little on depth.
Lyrics have never been M83’s forte, the thick accents and hushed tones of his guest stars usually working to obscure the words under the weight of the driving force of his glistening synth pads. Here, Gonzalez puts his own voice at the center and does not shy from belting out expressive vocal contortions when need be. As ambivalently flowery or cringe-inducingly whimsical as the cracked English gets, it’s mostly masked on Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming by some pretty solid emotional bellowing on Gonzalez’s part. As one who has never found Gonzalez’s words to be the type of material one scrawls in the back of a yearbook, the lyrics sheet included serves mostly as a translation, an amusing key to decipher the funny ways Gonzalez pronounces things throughout, but, to his eternal credit, he utters every syllable with the emotional sincerity of a teenage goth sitting in the bathtub with a razorblade.
This being a concept album though, audiences still get a dose of M83’s contentious use of spoken word on tracks like “Raconte-Moi Une Histoire” (Translation: “Tell Me a Story”), “Echoes of Mine”, and “Intro”. As per previous bits of dialogue, these bits are usually more expository than evocative, leaving the listener trapped in narrative whose simplicity often betrays the awesome grandeur of the music underlying it.
Still, there’s a stunning array of material within the whole of the song suite and Gonzalez has a great talent for composing an arch using disparate pieces. Though vaguely conceptual like the double and triple gatefold albums of the aforementioned dinosaurs, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming has pop encrusted in its Jurassic DNA.
Co-producer Justin Medal-Johnsen has worked with a wide variety of mainstream acts like Nine Inch Nails, Macy Gray, Gnarls Barkley, Tori Amos, and Air, but, interestingly enough, most of this work was as a session musician- notably as a bassist. Low end is so crucial to the M83 agenda that it’s unsurprising Gonzalez would enlist someone like Medal-Johnsen’s help, but the fact that he has limited experience as a producer makes Medal-Johnsen’s work on the album quite impressive, to say the least. Indie these days is all about the murky and the muddled, but Medal-Johnsen and Gonzalez have made an album that shines with resounding clarity and, in another era, would have sounded like a million bucks.
Medal-Johnsen is also key to the music’s pop bent. “Claudia Lewis”, for instance, is surely the first M83 song with a slap bass in it. There’s a few killer pop tunes on the album, most of which use enlist the playbook of tricks like loud-quiet-loud, cheeseball hooks, and dumb falsetto rock scat chants (“Midnight City”, “Reunion”, “Claudia Lewis”, “OK Pal”) to gleeful affect.
The album starts on three mighty strong notes. The thrust of the undeniable cymbal crashes and descending basslines in “Reunion” reminds me of the way Friendly Fires’s latest skirted dangerously close to INXS, but left enough space for the developments that followed, while “Midnight City” enlists a sax solo that (contra pomo) is almost tasteful. Meanwhile, the way Gonzalez and guest vocalist Zola Jesus sing “Carry on” on opener “Intro” is inspiring, but not because it’s anthemic. This is not another song about being a “survivor”, but rather one about pushing through the friction to find the magic on the other end. Sure enough, the song explodes into exactly the surfeit of radiating warmth the song promises is waiting out there.
The totality of sound on Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming has a way of blinding even the most critical listener to the problems that underline many of the album’s lesser songs- weak choruses, unfinished ideas, and a repetition of previously successful formulas. “Where the Boats Go” is very pretty, but it’s essentially a slightly less bombastic “In Church”. “New Map” is essentially a vague shoegaze-stripped retread of “Don’t Save Us From the Flames” down to the violent drum fills and bass bleating in anxiety. It’s only when the flutes and baritone sax start miming the main electronic melody at the end that the song even approaches some kind of new feeling (though it’s only new for M83, not for the Mercury Rev folks Gonzalez nicked it from).
Other tracks like “Train to Pluton” or “Fountains” can hardly be discredited, but are so brief that they function more as calling cards for the M83 sound than even filler — ringtones of what the group is capable of.
As delightful as M83’s full-bodied synths are, there’s something perversely pleasurable about the moments on Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming that are more earthen, like the Spanish guitar and vibrant beats of “Year One, One UFO” (which reminds me a bit of the wild left turn Sigur Ros took on “Gobbledigook”) or the becalming harmonizing at the commencement of disc two in “My Tears Are Becoming a Sea”, which is like The Beach Boys’s “A Day in the Life of a Tree” with an afterword in which the desecrated forest starts smashing to the ground.
There’s another moment like this on “Steve McQueen”. It’s a bridge in which the drums transform for a few seconds into these tinny thin-sounding drum machine rhythms which provide a brief release before the pummeling ensues again. These moments of contrast help confirm the scale of M83’s productions, which can at times seem so vast that it leaves the listener behind. The conflict is right there in the title. One can’t fault M83 for dreaming big, particularly since they tend to excel at this. But why are they in such a hurry? Why does it always have to feel like the world is going to split in two? Maybe it’s time to move past teenage cataclysm into dinosaur territory.