For M83's chief star-gazer Anthony Gonzalez, his youth is something he looks back upon with affection, something that has become the defining theme of his enchanting new album, "Saturdays = Youth" Recorded with Ken Thomas (Sigur Ros, Sugar Cubes, Cocteau Twins, Suede) and Ewan Pearson (Tracey Thorn, The Rapture, Ladytron) "Saturdays = Youth" delivers the rich sonic textures for which M83 is well known - this time with a more focused approach to song structure and form.
Saturdays=Youth-- the new album from French musician M83 (aka Anthony Gonzalez)-- opens with a stately piano phrase. Synths gradually overtake the piano and Gonzalez sings concise lyrics in falsetto-- "It's your face/ Where are we?/ Save me"-- amid billowing harmonies. It's the sort of big, beatless slow-burn he often uses to dramatize an impending pivot, a moment when the percussion gallops in and the song takes off for the stratosphere. But on this track, "You, Appearing", that pivot never arrives. Instead, the music tapers off into the booming overture of "Kim & Jessie".
Saturdays=Youth is still huge music, with three players in addition to Gonzalez-- but it has a different kind of heft from previous M83 records. On Before the Dawn Heals Us, M83 was all about the vertical push-- layer after layer of synths and drums piled up in a vertiginous tower. But these new songs disperse in all directions: Producers Ewan Pearson and Ken Thomas spread the melodies and beats into a sound world of uncommon vibrancy and pristine clarity, mounted on a massive yet now more proportionate scale.
Not only does the music move differently, it offers a different take on M83's favorite decade, the 1980s. Where previous albums saluted the doomed grandeur of the Cure and the retro-futurism of Blade Runner, Saturdays=Youth pays homage to Cocteau Twins (whom Thomas has also produced) and the teen dramas of filmmaker John Hughes. It's dense with new wave tropes: the chrome-plated guitars and aqueous keyboards on "Kim & Jessie", the decadent synthetic toms on the otherwise cloudy "Skin of the Night", the funk guitars and shivering cymbals of the masterful "Couleurs". Many modern bands have appropriated these iconic touchstones with a wink, a revision, or both. M83's reverent take is less common, bringing to mind Lansing-Dreiden's underappreciated 80s throwback The Dividing Island.
The album has the same nostalgic sparkle as Hughes' films, a soft-focused mythology of eternal summers and young love. In the liner notes, Gonzalez dedicates it to "all the friends, music, movies, joints, and crazy teachers that made my teenage years so great!" At 26, Gonzalez is just the right age to look back on this era with rose-tinted glasses, forgetting the alienation and anxiety, remembering only the sweetness. Whenever the darker side of teenhood rears its head, it's heroically battled back: On the shoegaze-thick "Dark Moves of Love", "everything is wrecked and grey," but the song ends on a poignant note: "I will fight the time and bring you back!" On the album's cover, heartbreakingly radiant youths (one of them a dead ringer for Molly Ringwald) strike poses in a gold and russet pasture-- the same kind of beautiful misfits that Hughes arranged in after-school detention. In lyrics filled with lusty eruptions ("They are Gods! They are lightning!"), archetypal teens invent themselves with innocent fervor: A love-struck young couple in "Kim & Jessie"; a goth with a crown of black roses and a heart of bubblegum in "Graveyard Girl".
In the context of teen drama, how perfect is it that Gonzalez met Morgan Kibby, whose dovelike vocals enrich "Skin of the Night" and "Up!", on MySpace? In the context of a band whose music is both literally and metaphorically cinematic, how perfect is it that Kibby has done voiceover work on the trailers for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and M. Night Shyamalan's Lady in the Water? These symmetries make Saturdays=Youth feel like an unaccountably alive, complete album. While some fans might be disappointed by the lack of a "Don't Save Us From the Flames"-style anthem, the change in M83's sound arrives just as Gonzalez has pushed the maximal thing to its limits and risks diminishing returns. On its first two studio albums, M83 did one thing very, very well: create compact doses of tension and adrenaline. Saturdays=Youth meaningfully diversifies M83's catalog while retaining Gonzalez's indelible fingerprint. Like his recent ambient foray, Digital Shades Vol. 1, it finds a guy who's known for painting gigantic horizons figuring out how to broaden them even more.
-Brian Howe, April 15, 2008