With their previous release Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts, Anthony Gonzalez and Nicholas Fromageau seemed to be trying to reinvent the portentous new strain of alt rock (you know, the type I described elsewhere on this site as being “rock that thinks it’s saving the world,” from the type of bands that would only book their concerts in the decaying ruins of ancient amphitheaters if they could). With at least one of their tongues planted firmly in cheek, the album’s bait and switch act (first it’s Miami Vice, then it’s Yo La Tengo) played out like the result of two Music Performance majors dicking around on Final Cut Pro while studying for their midterm exam on the topic of theme, variation, and counterpoint.
M83’s newest album, Before The Dawn Heals Us, follows the same blueprint, but without the benefit of having a theme for its variations. (Apparently, Gonzalez flunked the midterm and decided to drop out to pursue his dream of arena rock superstardom, while an MIA Fromageau evidently decided the brand name would be better off as a one-shot fluke.) The LP’s eye-catching cover features the band’s name scrawled along the left margin in gigantic white letters that positively dwarf the galaxy of lights from the night skyline. Space is the place, announces the cover, and just like the Marina Towers on Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot had me envisioning orange-tinted summer nights without air conditioning during “Poor Places,” M83’s music now sounds like that bit in Laurie Anderson’s The Ugly One With The Jewels where she ruminates on the old woman next to her on a plane who mistook the lights below for a constellation of stars. Before The Dawn is far-out trip music for those who don’t mind letting the music recede into the background of their reverie.
“Moonchild” opens the album with an overture of soaring Wendy Carlos futurism and cooing synth voices that all carry over to the first single “Don’t Save Us From The Flames,” which is more or less an extension of the first song played double-time. In fact, many of the album’s musical themes are paired off, and the most galvanizing track even comes with its own built-in division: “Farewell/Goodbye,” which sounds like if Radiohead had covered Angelo Badalamenti’s unearthed, unreleased session work with Sigur Rós. A thoroughly gorgeous throwback to when Air was writing prom music for Sofia Coppola’s nostalgic The Virgin Suicides, “Farewell/Goodbye” glides on fuzzy, synth-pop glitter and bass-heavy droning. Much of the album surrounding it works with the same ingredients to varying degrees of success (and the occasional moment of samey doldrums), but by the time the 10-minute coda “Lower Your Eyelids To Die With The Sun” positively demands the listener bathe in the glow of M83’s majesty (I picture Roger Daltrey raising his arms up in the final shot of Tommy), it’s all too clear that someone needs to attach Gonzalez to a movie score deal. Immediately.