Historically, each new M83 album has outdone its predecessor by such leaps and bounds that the band’s musical evolution has seemed almost Darwinian. Successive releases retain the strengths of their forebears, but rarely any of the weaknesses, standing more upright and refined, with crude textures slowly polished away from their strict shoegaze formulas and into pop-rock nuance. From the prehistoric, chintzy synth hammering of the bedroom experiment Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts to the full-on John Hughes and Kate Bush paean opera of Saturdays=Youth, M83 braintrust Anthony Gonzalez has consistently leveled a critical eye at his work: “I’ve never really been that proud of Saturdays=Youth, if I’m honest,” Gonzalez recently told Drowned in Sound, perhaps revealing a glimpse into the psyche of a never-satisfied auteur.
But by many accounts, M83 reached their musical apex with Saturdays=Youth, and the release of the band’s sixth studio album, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, marks their first musical regression in a decade-long career. It isn’t a conscious retreat: Gonzalez’s reaction to the pinnacle-like achievement of Saturdays=Youth isn’t to seek refuge in thematic pensiveness or stripped-down production. As always, he goes grand, aiming for the bright lights and saturated echoes of stadium anthems. One need look no further than the opening blast of “Intro” for evidence, where Gonzalez masterfully stacks buzzing circularity and distant choir strains with the seagull synths of “Kim & Jessie,” over which Zola Jesus delivers her muscular vocals.
Rather, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming falters because, unlike previous M83 albums, it’s awkwardly self-conscious and without substantial vision. There was a certain amount of posturing going on with Saturdays=Youth, but the affectations fit with the album’s melodramatic, Breakfast Club conceit. The new album, on the other hand, plays as though Gonzalez was painfully aware he’d hit a bad patch of writer’s block, and so he relies on the same sweeping chord structures and hurdling percussion to mask the noticeable lack of ideas.
In the months leading up to Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming’s release, Gonzalez has remarked that he aimed to combine the aesthetics of the decidely more shoegazey Before the Dawn Heals Us with the all-out, sparkling post-punk of Saturdays=Youth, and, for the most part, the album plays like a lifeless marriage of those two albums, offering synth-pop derivatives like “Claudia Lewis” and “Reunion” alongside ambient throwbacks like “Echoes of Mine,” all three serviceable, if conventional, M83 fare, and all three packed full of sounds and ideas that Gonzalez has shamelessly borrowed from his earlier work. Add in two more compounding problems (the regulation of the ethereal Morgan Kibby to mere backing vocals and an amplified sense of thinness thanks to just a few ideas being stretched across two discs) and ultimately Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming sounds much more like an M83 wannabe’s poor imitation than the real deal.