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Before Dawn, After Midnight: M83 in 10 Songs

on April 05, 2016, 12:00am
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Ever felt overwhelmed by an artist’s extensive back catalog? Been meaning to check out a band, but you just don’t know where to begin? In 10 Songs is here to help, offering a crash course and entry point into the daunting discographies of iconic artists of all genres. This is your first step toward fandom. Take it.

This week marks the release of Junk, M83’s seventh studio album and first in five years, marking the longest span of time between releases throughout their illustrious career. While by no means an unrecognized, low-profile group in the 2000s, it wasn’t until 2011’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, their grand, ambitious masterpiece, that M83 emerged as one of the genre’s biggest forces, a rising electronic-rock band that went from opening tours for Depeche Mode and The Killers to playing pavilions and prime festival slots on their own accord. After five years marked by touring and detours into film scores, M83 is ready to emerge with an attempt to follow up the success of their biggest statement to date.

Image (1) cos-m83-21.jpg for post 224587The vision of French musician Anthony Gonzalez, M83 has gone through various phases, beginning with a raw approach that steadily evolved into a more ambient-focused, electronic-driven project before fully growing into its own as a band focused on crafting cinematic grandeur. In a decade where many contemporaries were focusing on minimalism, M83 always had stadium-sized aspirations, making no qualms about crafting huge, overwrought moments in their music.

While seven albums across 15 years may not seem like much, M83’s catalog yields a surprising amount of diversity for a group whose music so vividly recalls visions of teenage angst and movie-ready dramatic climaxes. Gonzalez has shown remarkable growth and maturity over his long career, but he is still able to tap into that childlike sense of wonder and adolescence where every crossroads feels like a life-or-death decision. Indebted to the stylings of the ‘80s, Gonzalez has worked tirelessly to breathe new life into a brand of music often presumed as dated, tapping into and updating those underlying elements without relying too heavily on nostalgia.

M83’s work has many sides to it, and the first two singles from Junk show that you never know which you’ll get until you press play. As the mystery is about to subside on which M83 shows up on Junk, we’ve taken a look back at some of the most important touchpoints throughout their career, showcasing both the long journey that’s taken them to this point as well as highlighting the many styles they have excelled at. Whether you showed up for “Midnight City” or are still holding out for Digital Shades Vol. 2, M83 has a vast, diverse collection of material ready to be explored.

–David Sackllah
Staff Writer

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Hello, World

“Run Into Flowers” from Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts (2003)

“Give me peace and chemicals/ I want to run into flowers.” These words are the only ones uttered on the Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts single. Given that the track is one of M83’s more primitive efforts, simple lyrics are fitting. Perfectly fusing shoegaze and electronic elements, “Run into Flowers” is one of the first indications of the identity M83 carries to this day. Upon release, listeners and critics were floored by the band’s evocative powers, consequently garnering them comparisons to My Morning Jacket and Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Most importantly, “Run into Flowers” served as a jumping-off point for M83’s gradually increasing success; but it was also the first time they put their work into other producers’ hands. The Run into Flowers EP laid the groundwork for the Reunion EP and all the other lush remixes created by and for M83. –Danielle Janota

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High-Octane Thrills

“Don’t Save Us From The Flames” from Before The Dawn Heals Us (2005)

M83 didn’t truly come into their own until 2005’s Before the Dawn Heals Us. The first album after the departure of founding member Nicolas Fromageau was where Gonzalez took full creative control of the project and pushed it towards the style most associated with the band today. Pre-”Midnight City” M83’s most thrilling, recognizable track arose from this on “Don’t Save Us from the Flames”, which opens right out of the gate with an electrifying synth-line and soaring choral vocals, intense and sharply focused. Lyrically, it fits in well with Gonzalez’s go-to themes of desperation, destruction, and reaching out for someone as the world seems to be falling apart. What makes M83 so remarkable is the talent with which Gonzalez sells those ideas, taking sci-fi elements that could have easily been cheesy but invigorating them with such charge that you can’t help but get swept up. When Gonzalez commits, he goes all in, and the results for everyone involved are the better for it. –David Sackllah

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The Ambient Side

“The Highest Journey” from Digital Shades Vol. 1 (2007)

For an artist with a penchant for bombast, it’s easy to forget how much of Gonzalez’s repertoire is built off of muted, atmospheric work. While it may not be a significant portion of the live act, the quieter, ambient moments are as essential to their discography as the danceable ones. With the more instrumental parts of Dead Cities, Red Seas, & Lost Ghosts and key elements of Saturdays=Youth and Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, M83 has always focused on ambience. This was most apparent on 2007’s Digital Shades Vol. 1, arguably the most overlooked album in their discography. A winding, involving work, the low-key effort was meant to be the first in a series but ended up being a one-off, a brief interlude between more dramatic records. The record contains textured, serene elements throughout, concluding with its grand finale in the eight-minute “The Highest Journey”. While understated, the song slowly builds up to a thrilling climax that recaptures M83’s knack for breathtaking moments. Even when Gonzalez indulges his contemplative side, he knows how to craft sweeping drama and tension out of it. –David Sackllah

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“One More Song!”

“Couleurs” from Saturdays=Youth (2008)

Powerful, dynamic, and lengthy, “Couleurs” was chosen as the live encore in 2011/12 for a reason. Clocking in at 8:37, the ambitious acid-washed track builds slowly, but surely, capturing the essence of what makes M83 so exemplary as a band and live show. Stirring up life-affirming emotions is no easy feat, especially when relying so heavily on ’80s elements, which run the risk of sounding dated and cheesy in the current electronic climate. But Gonzalez handles these risks with grace. By juxtaposing anxious ’80s synths with serene backing vocals, he creates a breadth of emotion so many producers and composers strive to find. That said, not only was “Couleurs” one of the best singles from Saturdays=Youth, but it’s one of several pivotal songs that prophesied Gonzalez’s future in film scoring. –Danielle Janota

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The John Hughes Tribute

“Kim & Jessie” from Saturdays=Youth (2008)

The third single off Saturdays=Youth is where we really get a glimpse at Gonzalez’s genius. By headphone or speaker, “Kim & Jessie” paints the simple picture of two young lovebirds (rightfully so). The track was, and still is, considered one of M83’s most upbeat, framing the fifth studio album as a more romantic effort than preceding and forthcoming works. By music video, though, a darker picture is painted. In an obvious nod to John Hughes, we follow two adolescent, rollerskating girlfriends playing in their “secret world” full of longing, sexual tension, and dark undertones. Even more triumphant than the song itself, though, is how simply and melodically it was produced. Up until that point, Gonzalez and crew were largely known for spacious and ambient works. “Kim & Jessie” allowed them to showcase a more relatable side that set the stage for more vocally friendly tracks on Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. –Danielle Janota

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The One Everybody Knows

“Midnight City” from Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming (2011)

It takes four seconds for Gonzalez to mold one of the most notable riffs of the decade. It was only three years after Saturdays=Youth, but M83 had kept a relatively low profile working on the behemoth double LP follow-up that would go down as the biggest of their career. When they broke their silence with “Midnight City” in the summer of 2011, it was a thunderous announcement, blasting out the gate with breakneck speed in a manner that could not be ignored. All of Gonzalez’s go-tos were encapsulated and perfected in these four minutes: the catchy, leading synths; the weightless, soaring vocals; the vaguely aspirational lyrics; and the ‘80s worship that led to Gonzalez almost singlehandedly bringing saxophones back to the current pop landscape. It felt as if he had finally tapped into his prowess, distilling everything remarkable about M83 into this one song. –David Sackllah

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The Acid Trip

“Raconte-Moi Une Histoire” from Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming (2011)

“It’s dangerous,” Gonzalez said of the trippy, four-minute long narrative about a very special jungle frog, “but if you listen to it in the context of the album, it makes sense.” During the first minute, “Raconte-Moi Une Histoire” seems like the black sheep on an exhaustive double album teeming with galactic synthpop. By the end, though, most listeners find themselves touched by one of the most vulnerable and human tracks on Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. Through the lens of producer Justin Meldal-Johnson’s five-year old daughter, Gonzalez perfectly expresses his affinity for nostalgia, storytelling, and dreams in one sweeping package. Admittedly, the album’s remaining tracks capture these elements with more subtlety. But when asked how to describe the album, Gonzalez called it “very, very, very, epic.” It’s safe to say all subtlety was thrown out the window. –Danielle Janota

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All The Remixes

“Reunion” from Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming (2011)

More streamlined, but equally as catchy, “Reunion” has become nearly as synonymous with M83 as “Midnight City”. Through idyllic poetry and inflated vocals, the soaring pop ballad constructs a painless dream world for listeners to play in. “There’s no more loneliness/ Only sparkles and sweat/ There’s no more single fate/ You make me feel myself,” he croons. It’s hard to believe that Gonzalez would choose to chop or screw this pristine track in any way, but that’s exactly what he did. Featuring mind-bending reworks by The Naked and The Famous, Dale Earnhardt Jr Jr, and White Sea, the Reunion EP dropped a year after the track’s original release. While none of the remixes holds a candle to the original, they added to the track’s prevalence in M83’s discography. “For me, the imaginary world is so much more powerful than real life,” admits the shamelessly romantic Frenchman. In “Reunion”, like in most of Gonzalez’s work, we’re taken to that world. -–Danielle Janota

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The Journey To Hollywood

“Oblivion (ft. Susanne Sundfor)” from Oblivion: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (2013)

The success of Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming garnered M83 a higher profile, with critical and commercial success leading to Grammy nominations and the band upgrading to later, prime festival spots. As the cycle behind that record receded, the new recognition led to Gonzalez being tapped to write his first film score — the Tom Cruise post-apocalyptic science fiction film Oblivion. As the term “cinematic” had always been used to describe M83, the pairing seemed like a perfect fit. However, it ended up being a less than ideal experience for Gonzalez, as he explained the process as a mostly frustrating one that nearly drove him to quit midway through as a result of the bureaucracy.

The resulting record was a bit of an overblown mess, one in line with the film it was scoring. The strongest moment was the title track, an exciting rush of a song where Norwegian powerhouse Susanne Sundfor sang lead vocals, proving herself more than a good fit for the grandeur of M83’s music. While the experience of Oblivion may have yielded less than fruitful results, at the least it led to a great single and the start of a bountiful collaborative relationship with Sundfor, as the two reunited on her excellent 2015 album 10 Love Songs and M83’s latest, Junk. Oblivion may have been an ordeal, but there was at least a pleasant consolation to arise out of it. –David Sackllah

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A New Sound

“Do It, Try It” from Junk (2016)

After six albums comprised of solemn dream pop, “Do It, Try It” came as a surprise. The first single off M83’s forthcoming Junk ditches the slow build for a campy ragtime intro, making it pretty safe to say that we’re going see a different side of Gonzalez this time around. This change in tone can be attributed to his change of heart. A self-admitted sucker for nostalgia, Gonzalez expressed his frustration and fascination with the way music is consumed now.

“Everybody is kind of throwing away art in a certain manner,” he said in a press release. “People will listen to an album for instance and just pick a track they like to put on a playlist.”

As a highly conceptual artist who needs the sum of an album’s parts to express an idea, this shift is understandably troubling. Judging by the two singles he has released thus far, “Do It, Try It” and “Solitude”, it appears he’s taking himself less seriously these days and just throwing things at the wall to see what sticks. As M83 embarks on a hefty festival tour this season, it will be exciting to see how Junk shapes the live show and discography. –Danielle Janota

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