Anthony Gonzalez revisits his youth affectionately, but without the angst.
Saturdays=Youth is Anthony Gonzalez' postcard to his teenage years. The fifth studio album from M83 has been built up for its more solid song structures and its production team, which includes Ken Thomas (Sigur Ros, Cocteau Twins) and Ewan Pearson (the Rapture, Ladytron). Well, M83 will never get quite to straightforward radio rock, though they come close a few times on Saturdays=Youth.
The CD booklet credits not only Anthony Gonzalez but Loic Maurin on percussion, guitar, bass, and keyboards, and Morgan Kibby on vocals, piano, and keyboards. While the project is still primarily Gonzalez' own, Kibby's rich voice blends nicely with his own light tenor, and if she becomes more of a permanent resource for Gonzalez than a guest vocalist it will be a welcome addition.
Saturdays=Youth is full of the nostalgia of the memory of the kind of big, bent-out-of-shape nights that you can have often at 18, once in a while at 24, and almost never at 30. And in general, M83's shoegazey drones and layered synths are well suited to this kind of sepia-tinged memorializing. But these memories seem to be dulled somehow, and it goes along with the sound of the album. The layered guitars and keyboards are significantly toned down vis-à-vis earlier M83 work, and there's none of the bite of Before the Dawn Heals Us or the upbeat drive of Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts. Instead, there's a stronger '80s vibe through much of the new album. It's in the echoing drums and the New Order synths and the whisper-over-crash shoegaze aesthetic.
As the album progresses, Gonzalez seems to realize that his strongest material is not in the imitation of straighter song forms, but in the more extended electronic atmospherics that are closer to where M83's previously been. "Couleurs" is exemplary, and part of a sequence of four songs in the middle of the disc that are among the album's most compelling. "Couleurs" is Gonzalez at his most synaesthetic – eight minutes of expansive, looping keyboards, and whooping percussion. It's easy to let yourself be lost in these overpowering textures. On straighter songs like "Up!", recognizable melodies are allowed to luxuriate for once in the foreground of the sound. That song does something interesting: the short introduction is much fuller in texture than the rest of the song, and it's never returned to – instead, the song wanders off into the looped refrain "If I clean the rocket…" with a completely different timbre. But the album's epic heart is "Too Late", a slow-growing and restrained ballad. The piano waves build and fall, as Gonzalez sings, his voice's edges smoothed out by the computer, "If you are a ghost / I'll call your name … You, always."
Still, it is a little disappointing that the point of Saturdays=Youth kind of misses the point. The more conventional "song"-like material does have something of M83's stately grandeur but feels somewhat hollow, probably because the slow-burn's integral to the act's power. And when, as on "Skin of the Night", the two songwriting methods collide, you reach a junction at which you realize that Gonzalez doesn't really know how to stretch the original idea out in that form, so that the last three minutes feel artificially tacked on. In this context the ambient, 11-minute finale also flows by without leaving much of an impression. That's fine for an entirely ambient album like Digital Shades (Vol. 1), but here it does feel like filler.
So Saturdays=Youth isn't an unqualified success, and probably won't be as warmly welcomed by fans as M83's previous albums have been. Still, there are plenty of moments on the disc that remind you why this pulsing, layered music is so powerful. Something seems to be holding Anthony Gonzalez back. Let's hope it's not a permanent retreat.