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M83 Resets And Rediscovers in “Fantasy”

M83's new album Fantasy

When I first heard “Midnight City” over a decade ago, it felt like I was really living through the birth of a stone-cold classic. The M83 song dominated my early twenties. If I was riding in a friend’s car to get Taco Bell, hanging out at a party, or just playing Mario Kart with the guys, it was playing. We danced to it at weddings, heard it in commercials, and when the band played it on Jimmy Fallon, it became solidified as one of the very best songs (I believe that’s factual). 

Anthony Gonzalez, the primary songwriter behind M83, couldn’t disagree more. The success of “Midnight City” terrified him as it catapulted M83 into fame. This led to the EDM community taking his song much to his disinterest. Not only that, but there was constant movie syncs. This resulted in the growing pressure that he may never top the band’s ambitious 2011 double album, Hurry Up We’re Dreaming

I can sympathize with that sentiment. Hurry Up We’re Dreaming and “Midnight City” could be considered the perfect materialization of Gonzalaz’s vision. Nostalgic, epic, cinematic; it’s everything he had worked towards.

So how did he follow such a fully realized album? By putting out Junk in 2016. 

Junk wasn’t necessarily bad. There are some great tracks on there, but it was a hard left turn in a seemingly hesitant response to the success of HUWD. It contains the same nostalgic 80s synth aesthetic. But ventured hard into a more kitschy and playful sound. The record attempted to explore the grandeur of a sci-fi epic. But, with the energy of an 80s sitcom theme song. It has its gems, but the wind was taken out of the sails of fans looking for beautiful epic from M83. 

In the decade since HUWD, M83 has given us that weird and goofy album, a few film scores (one in which burnt out Gonzalez on ever working in Hollywood again,) and a sequel album of instrumentals. As the years went by, I wondered if M83 were done making traditional albums. I was beginning to make peace with the fact their arc had possibly closed.

Luckily, I was wrong and Fantasy, the 9th record from M83, finds the band refreshed while channeling their roots.

It rules

Fantasy feels like a culmination of all the sounds explored throughout M83’s discography. The electronic shoegaze of Dead Cities, Red Seas, & Lost Ghosts, the shimmering modulated guitar tones and pop sensations of Saturdays=Youth, and the scope of Hurry Up We’re Dreaming. Some may think this is simply course correction after a decade of wandering the wilderness. I understand that. But for me, it sounds like Gonzalez rediscovering his passion in the sounds that excite him.

“Ocean’s Niagara” served as a mission statement of sorts with its steady synth groove and the repeated mantra: “Beyond Adventure!”  I could hear it play over an imaginary montage of teenagers on the first day of summer in an 80s movie.

Album standout, “Amnesia,” could fit nicely alongside some of the best songs on HUWD, with its massive ceiling-blasting chorus featuring Kaela Sinclair, who’s impressive vocals are featured throughout the album and is maybe the record’s secret weapon. 

M83’s records are often sweeping in wonder as tracks dip into pop and then ambience, and then dance, and more instrumental cinematics.

Fantasy marks a return to that flow after Junk’s linear track delivery. “Earth To Sea” drifts into an instrumental long enough for one to believe we’ve moved on before returning to its triumphant and angsty finale. “Deceiver” introduces the second half of the record with a mostly instrumental songs. It sounds like looking at a sunset with its easy tropical-adjacent groove and guitars. “Kool Nuit” is a haunted slow build, once again featuring stellar vocals from Kaela, that surprisingly transforms into a more anxious and sinister freakout that recalls the darker moments of Before The Dawn Heals Us

“Us And The Rest” and “Radar, Far Gone” recall the more ballady tracks from HUWD like “Wait,” “Splendor,” and “Soon, My Friend” which border on derivative depending on what you are looking for in a M83 song. In the context of the record, they are nice downbeat breathers and quite beautiful, if a bit familiar.

M83 have always been an emotionally driven band, even if the lyrics and vocals are too drenched in reverb to hear. This is all standard M83 fare and you have to buy into it or just ignore it. Fantasy uses its nostalgic sheen vocal delivery to express the pursuit of youthfulness and freedom and the wonder that comes along with it.

Even when you can barely hear what is being said, there can be a feeling of romance, resilience, and belief that puts meaning in the songs.

Lyrics are both central and complementary to the music. The songs are foremost the experience. The lyrics further paint between the lines what these exercises in dreams and love are reaching for. Lyrics, just like the vocal delivery, are ambiguous but intentional. They are clues, resources, tools to help lift you off the ground when you listen to a M83 song.

When Gonzalez sings “Everyone already knows your name / It’s written in the clouds” or “I believe in the darkness, it’s just a sound / I’m in love with some sadness, it’s just a sound / Ride with me.” We don’t have access to the explicit details of Gonzalez’s life. However, we are given a decoder that we can find pinpoints of things we can relate to.

Fantasy marks a triumphant return from not only a long absence, but to the sounds and places that fans find inspiring and exciting.

I can imagine the parallel of a fan who might be disappointed. Is this just a retread? Is this derivative? Were we hoping Ganzalez would venture into unknown territory? I’m not sure. Fantasy seems like a rest, a rejuvenation, and Gonzalez has expressed in interviews recently that he is moving forward making the music he wants to as he escapes the wake and shadow of “Midnight City.” To me, this is all exciting. 

Gonzalez hasn’t shied away from his love of nostalgia. Old movies, classic video games, romantic youth: these are all ingredients to the music he wants to make. Fantasy proves that Gonzalez should be allowed to mine these influences as long as he wants. Even if M83 doesn’t reinvent themselves or ever top “Midnight City”, only they can make music like this. 

Fantasy may be a shrug for a jaded fan hoping to see the band take on new heights. From where I’m standing, it sounds like the band found themselves again and I couldn’t be more excited.

Top Picks: “Amnesia”, “Earth To Sea”, “Kool Nuit”
Skip: “Dismemberment Bureau”

M83 will be at Royal Oak Music Theatre on  April 30th. Purchase tickets here.

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