Released earlier this year, M83’s third album, Before the Dawn Heals Us, was a bright, spacious burst of Technicolor emotion. Drenched in synths and sweating sweeps of guitar, and powered by Anthony Gonzalez’s heart-on-sleeve vocals, the album was unabashed in its earnestness. In anyone else’s hands, the album’s sentiment would have come off as coy, but Gonzalez’s sincerity is palpable and ultimately powerful.
Looking at their debut album, freshly re-released domestically in the United States, the gushing earnestness can be observed simply by reading the tracklisting. By stringing the song titles together, a crude but simple message is revealed: Last Saturday Night at the Party Kelly Sitting Facing That Violet Tree Staring at Me I’m Getting Closer She Stands Up Carresses [sic] Slowly My Face I’m Happy, She Said. Though it reads like a LiveJournal entry or sensitive scribblings in a high school diary, it also displays the narrative approach that Gonzalez, and former collaborator Nicolas Fromageau (who departed the group after Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts) have brought to the group’s subsequent albums. However, anyone looking for the immediately compelling fervor of Before The Dawn Heals Us will be disappointed. On their first outing, M83 keep the emotion at arm’s length, obscuring it beneath their now familiar shoegazing electronics.
The first thing listeners will notice is that the album is largely instrumental. The vocals that would appear on the next two albums are missing here, replaced by pre-recorded vocals and sampled dialogue. Musically, the album shows the band still perfecting their sound, but with their eyes cast down at the floor. Sounding more like Air than they would on later releases, the band keeps the sound fairly straight ahead, with very little in dynamic shifts, instead focusing on their slowly evolving compositions.
Like their other albums, their debut is split between fully realized songs and shorter, transitional tracks. The proper tunes are more subdued here, unfolding at somewhat more glacial pace, allowing the thick, layered production to unfold like molasses. The result is an album that isn’t as immediately persuasive as its successors. For every track that works — like the carefully plotted “Night”, the ’80s dancefloor meets ’90s house beat of “Sitting” and the video game party of “Slowly” — there are a handful more that don’t quite gel. “Facing That” can’t seem to resolve its freely noisy and avant intro and outros with its orchestrated middle. Even what has become the band’s trademark, the epic closing song, fizzles out disappointingly. “I’m Happy, She Said” never quite reaches the plateau the band is aiming for. The transitional tracks fare worse. The four of them that are here are forgettable and add nothing to the overall scope of the album.
The disc’s biggest drawback, however, is its use of vocals. Buried beneath the music often to the point of being incomprehensible, it’s a struggle to ascertain the words or even the emotion of them. Where the vocals became a focal point of equal stature in later releases, here they are haphazardly and half-heartedly employed. The emotional heart of the songs, and indeed, the entire disc, is muted by vocals that are cold and distant. “She Stands Up” — which samples Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas — kills its own mood by over-employing its own sample, diminishing its impact. “I’m Getting Closer” chooses sampled dialogue that is played backward, but to what end, I’m not sure. “Kelly” on the other hand is downright embarrassing, with its computer spoken dialogue coming off like the uneducated cousin to Radiohead’s “Fitter Happier”.
What can’t be denied about M83’s first effort is that it’s awash in ideas. The band’s ambition has certainly never been wanting in possibilities. But, where their last two albums have arrived as beautifully complete sonic canvasses, their debut offers multiple smaller canvasses with ideas started but sometimes never finished.