'Steve McQueen' by M83, taken from the album 'Hurry Up, We're Dreaming'.
Plain big is not so hard to pull off. Queens Bohemian Rhapsody, Pink Floyds Comfortably Numb, Harry Nilssons Without You, Jimmy Webbs MacArthur Park, Guns N Roses Sweet Child o Minerock history is landmarked with preposterously massive songs that are often bloated and overwrought, songs that stand as giant signposts to feeling, but communicate little actual emotion. Grand-scale songs may be impressive, but filling tunes of a synapse short-circuiting enormity with real emotional resonance making them memorable for reasons other than size is much more difficult.
Its a talent Anthony Gonzalez has clearly mastered with 'Hurry Up, Were Dreaming, a double album that brokers a brilliantly effective accord between the ostensibly conflicting demands of 80s commercial pop and experimental rock, and packs some truly giant tunes. The Antibes native has been steadily working to perfect the art of the megalithic alt.pop song since founding M83 in 2001. His self-titled debut from that year and sophomore release two years later, 'Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts established him as a heavy hitter in the post-rock/bliss pop/cosmic electronica league, a skilled producer of hazy, lusciously layered, irresistibly narcotized, epic dreamscapes crafted (essentially solo) from treated electronics, plush synths, murmured vocals and fx-heavy guitar. Third album, 'Before the Dawn Heals Us (2005) upped the cinematic, star-spangled ante but added a dark strangeness, while in 2007 M83 released the entirely ambient 'Digital Shades Vol 1. It was 2008s 'Saturdays = Youth, a nostalgia-soaked paean to Gonzalezs teenage years and an unashamed celebration of artists such as Kate Bush and Jean-Michel Jarre that paved the way for the monumental 'Hurry Up, Were Dreaming.
Co-produced by bassist Justin Meldal-Johnsen (known for his work with Beck, NIN, The Mars Volta, Goldfrapp), it took just 13 months to complete and features guest vocalists Zola Jesus on 'Intro and Brad Laner (from 90s band Medicine) on Splendor, plus contributions from Gonzalezs long-term collaborator, his brother Yann. Gonzalezs decision to record a 22-track double LP was the result of a youth impressed by The Beatles white album, 'Ummagumma by Pink Floyd and Smashing Pumpkins 'Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Artists that tried to do something as big as a double album were always inspiring to me, he explains. Its a lot of work, but I always wanted to achieve something like that one day, and I just felt that the time was right for me to make one.
The wryly contradictory title is a reference to a loose theme of dreaming and remembering, which Gonzalez found himself doing a lot more of after he moved to LA to live in January 2010. The initial three months were very tough, he reveals. I was feeling lonely in my apartment, working on the album and I dont really know why, but I started to have memories from my childhood. It made me nostalgic in a good way, and I started to remember some of my dreams from being a kid nothing very precise, but more the feeling. So, I thought that was a good concept for the album. Its a retrospective of my life, from childhood to being a teenager and then an adult. These recollections surface most explicitly in Raconte-Moi Une Histoire (when he was five, his mother used to buy him a kids magazine with the same title, which had a cassette of narrated stories mounted on the cover) and OK Pal, which reminds Gonzalez of episodes in his teens, like when you first meet someone who really understands you.
The album title is also a neat summary of the records twin tempers urgent and introspective and of Gonzalezs dual identity as dancefloor enthusiast and solipsistic muser. So, Midnight City is a huge chunk of glittering and euphoric nu-disco that somehow joins that dots between Peter Gabriel and Underworld, and features not only that big no-no of contemporary pop a saxophone solo but also a fade-out. Reunion, too, is built on a triumphantly massive scale, its layer-cake vocals suggesting Toto as produced by My Bloody Valentine, while Claudia Lewis ramps up M83s feelings for 80s music from affection to passionate love, even sneaking in the slap bass usually verboten by the contemporary pop police.
Conversely, Where the Boats Go wraps woozy pop soundscapes around a sombre piano coda, the aptly titled Splendor summons a divinely doomed, synth-centric romanticism and the albums wild card, Soon, My Friend, drops all things electronic in favour of acoustic guitar, strings, brass and a choir. I like the fact that the album is like a rollercoaster, Gonzalez says. Sometimes it goes fast, and then it will slow down for a while. You cant stay at the same tempo all the time.
This is an album thats epic not only in terms of scale, but also of structure, with both an intro and an outro, and brief tracks like Train to Pluton and Fountains functioning as interludes. M83s music has long been acknowledged as cinematic, not least of all by Gonzalez himself, whos a huge film fan (Terrence Malicks 'Days of Heaven, 'Nowhere by Gregg Araki, Werner Herzogs 'Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Todd Haynes 'Safe are some of his favourites). The whole album is like a movie, with opening and closing credits, he explains. Its a journey, you know?
This love of cinema even helped Gonzalez ratchet up his vocal power levels for the new record. When writing in the studio, he often plays films in the background with the sound on mute and, while working on Wait, he watched 'Aguirre, the Wrath of God, with Klaus Kinski and all his anger. And so I decided to try something where I was almost screaming, alone in my studio in LA. That inspired me to go forward in my vocals. Morgan [Kibby, vocalist and keyboardist] came into the studio and I played her the vocal as a work in process. She told me I should start singing like that, so it was a kind of discovery. A good one, I hope!
Kings Of Leon, The Killers and Depeche Mode all of whom M83 toured with in 2010 can also take some credit for Gonzalezs newly beefy vocals. As he says: When you see all those frontmen onstage who are very confident in front of a large audience, it gives you confidence to try the same thing and thats what I wanted to do with this album. I said to myself, 'Okay, Anthony; you just turned 30. Its time for you to be less shy in front of a microphone. Ive never sung as loud before as I have on this album.
The widescreen, gee-wow monumentality and seductive mirror-ball dazzle of songs like Midnight City provided Gonzalez with a songwriting and production challenge because [my] history is very indie, very post- rock and ambient and cinematic. But Ive also always been fascinated by pop artists, especially during the 80s Tears For Fears, Prefab Sprout, The Thompson Twins all these bands are a huge influence on this album. Its my first record where the musical spectrum is so wide and thats very important to me. Most of the time, people only remember my more cinematic and melancholic songs, but I also want them to remember my pop songs.
One thing you wont hear alongside the synths, slap bass, Sindrums and sax solo on 'Hurry Up, Were Dreaming is Gonzalez apologizing for romanticizing the 80s. Hes hopelessly hooked. Im in love with the sound of the 80s, he enthuses. I always thought the production then was stunning. Its very clear and very powerful, with not a lot of elements. Commercial music was better in those days. Im not saying music is bad nowadays on the contrary, music is very interesting and a lot of it is very innovative but if you listen to the radio now, it sounds like shit. If you were listening to radio in the 80s, you were hearing acts like Blondie, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Tears For Fears, Talk Talk there were great songs that were also fantastic and meaningful pieces of art.
Fantastic songs that are also meaningful pieces of art for M83, that means instruments played live in the studio, not by a computer, apart from the Pro Tools software he uses for actual recording. He may have been smitten by the impossibly lush, futuristic synths of Jean-Michel Jarres 'Oxygene when he saw him on TV as a kid, but replicating those thrillingly futuristic sounds was never Gonzalezs aim. The main idea with this album was to make something in the way that people used to make albums, before computers. Going into a proper studio, taking time to find the right sounds for the guitarsits more about crafting.
Mine is the story of any artist, reckons Gonzalez. I have more experience now, Im more mature and I have more confidence in my music. This is the first time in my career when, if I have an idea in my head, I can create it in music. Its something I was never able to do before. Im a big romantic, especially about music, he adds. Theres nothing more beautiful than something well recorded that you can listen to on a good sound system. Something meaningful and massive he might well add.