Listening to M83‘s ninth studio outing, Fantasy, I imagine a scene far above the panoramic city skyline displayed on their 2005 record Before the Dawn Heals Us. Ascend above the skyscrapers and veins of light flitting across the freeways, rendered in song through the restless energy of “Don’t Save Us from the Flames” and “Teen Angst”, and one might find themselves in the airy, wispy space conjured by the synthesizers of Fantasy. The image on the album’s cover – seemingly, a rendition of frontman Anthony Gonzalez following a trip to the Upside Down – does not express the music within the album the way Dawn does. But his face and its many eyes suggest another world, as do many of these new songs.
Still, one could not mistake Fantasy for anything other than an M83 album. The brand of wide-eyed nostalgic synthpop exemplified by M83’s strongest outings, including Dawn and Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming (2011), operates in full force here, with the reference pool remaining squarely in the 1980s. The mood of the soaring ballad “Laura”, a highlight of this LP, evokes Don Henley’s Building the Perfect Beast, and the flute amidst the synths in “Deceiver” recalls Peter Gabriel‘s soundtrack to The Last Temptation of Christ. The ground being trodden here should be recognizable to anyone who’s encountered M83 before.
This isn’t to say that Fantasy amounts to a mere rehash of the band’s style, exactly. Beginning particularly with Saturdays=Youth (2008), M83’s output explores various dimensions of the 1980s synthpop and rock aesthetics. 2016’s collection of curious Junk, for instance, lives up to its title by compiling bits and pieces of the 1980s into an aural junk drawer. Power ballads! Things that sound like infomercial jingles! Hair metal shredding guitar solos! (There’s a Steve Vai cameo.) Even the album cover, which sports what look like Sesame Street background characters, could be a lost still from some 1980s children’s program. (They’re an allusion to McDonald’s commercials from then.)
2019’s Digital Shades, Vol. II, or DSVII, a sequel to a 2007 album of the same name, followed Junk, taking a turn more for a gentle ambience over its predecessor’s intentional kitsch. On that LP, as he’s done throughout his career, Gonzalez creates a cohesive, singularly focused aesthetic that, taken with each previous M83 recording, builds up to something like the “Ring Cycle” of 1980s’ rock and pop genres.
As a result, Fantasy, like the records before it, sometimes treads ground that M83’s covered many times before. The textural quality of this music follows in the footsteps of DSVII, just the huge crescendos add to the legacy of Dreaming. Like the music of the past, it often quotes, Fantasy is, in many ways, comfort listening; the layers of these songs form the sonic equivalent of a warm blanket. Yet this warmth, after all of M83’s successes in refining their style, wanes more quickly than it has in the past. When on “Oceans Niagara”, Gonzales declares, “Beyond adventure!” right before a dramatic guitar down strum that segues into a dreamy but driving synth rock tune, it’s hard not to feel – no matter how persuasively Gonzalez performs this music – that we’ve been here before.
Admittedly, Fantasy undertakes some more ambitious sonic shifts from time to time. Though its title suggests something more copacetic with Junk’s fascination with sonic tchotchkes, “Kool Nuit” begins with a string section redolent of a show-stopping Broadway ballad but settles into what sounds like a synth version of an organ processional at a religious mass. But these inventions are drowned out by the more old-hat M83 stylings, and with the album running over an hour, the more experimental turns get lost in the haze of synth plumes.
On “Sunny Boy” and “Sunny Boy Part 2”, which appear late in Fantasy, the music starts in a distant volume, as if we hear it from some faraway place. This production choice by Gonzalez and co-producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen is apt. M83, at their very best, transport the listener to places at once familiar and imagined, and in moments Fantasy recaptures that magic. Gonzales hasn’t abandoned his compositional ambitions, and more importantly, he appears not to have lost any wonder. Lengthier tracks like “Earth to Sea” and “Deceiver” brim with the kind of cinematic grandeur for which M83 is renowned. But when Fantasy reaches its close, I am again taken back to the metropolis on Dawn’s album art. Perhaps, in the future, M83 might descend from the clouds back to earth.