The artwork for M83’s excellent fifth album, Saturdays=Youth, features photos of sun-dappled teenagers trying on a half-dozen varieties of rebellious Caucasian beauty. The girl in the picture paired with the lyrics for lead single and album standout “Graveyard Girl” is a dead ringer for Molly Ringwald circa Pretty in Pink. The photo provides support to M83 auteur Anthony Gonzalez’s description of the song as a tribute to John Hughes movies—support that comes across as slightly gauche, since the song is perfectly capable of speaking for itself. An ode to the precocious self-involvement of that sweetly storied stereotype, the goth chick, it’s awash with post-punky electric guitars and a curiously not irritating children’s choir cooing “yeah yeah yeah” at the edge of the mix. It’s the kind of work strong enough to be bolstered by a breakdown featuring a female voiceover that concludes, “I’m 15 years old and I feel it’s already too late to live. Don’t you?” And it’s certainly the most typically, successfully pop moment this difficult, often transcendent act has ever produced.
This record’s focus on adolescence is somewhat ironic, because as an artistic statement it’s M83’s most mature yet. The band’s previous albums often eschewed lyrical coherence and formalist pop structures in favor of dense compositions that layered synthesizer tracks ad infinitum. These usually progressed to orgasmic instrumental crescendos, and the effect was often beautiful yet wearying, the aural equivalent of a majestic vista’s necessary uphill climb. Saturdays=Youth doesn’t take as much work to appreciate. Although many songs still build toward walls of synth that flirt with white noise, the trademark crescendos are both leavened and deepened by being recast as textural objects and woven into lyrical pop songs. “Kim & Jessie,” a sweet evocation of the innocence of kids who “have a secret world,” restrains its third-act maelstrom particularly effectively. And when the intimately ethereal ballad “Too Late” pulls back from a swell of glittering synthesizers in favor of gentle acoustic piano, it’s like hearing lightning bottled. In the context of a fully coherent song cycle, even more traditional long-form exercises in keyboard freakout like the polyrhythmic set piece “Couleurs” evince surprising depth.
Co-producers Ken Thomas and Ewan Pearson (who’ve respectively chaired efforts by touchstones the Cocteau Twins and Tracey Thorn) lend the proceedings a certain 1980s air, especially by emphasizing the tense low end beneath all the skyscraping melody. And though analog synthesizer remains definitional of the M83’s sound, they open the arrangements to include more naturalistic instrumentation as well. The approach allows this band named for a galaxy to seem more grounded, and yet more universal, than ever before.