About 12 years ago — though it feels like 100 — M83 released Digital Shades Vol. 1, a captivating album of beautifully colorful ambient synth textures and drone expressions that only featured a glimpse of the rock-centered, fuzzy-synthed grandiosity that manifested on Anthony Gonzalez and crew’s proper studio albums of that era. Overall, it was definitely more Popol Vuh than Saturdays=Youth, the classic album that would follow it. In releasing unused ambient tracks, Gonzalez closed one era of M83 and allowed for another to arise.
Saturdays=Youth (2008) brought us masterpieces such as “Graveyard Girl” and “Kim & Jessie” and the audacious double album, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming (2011), gave us earth-shattering gems like “Midnight City” and “Steve McQueen.” Gonzalez would then go on to work with noteworthy composer Joseph Trapanese on the film score for Oblivion, followed by the confusingly divisive retro-fun-fest album Junk in 2016, the first without Morgan Kibby since DSVI.
Why bring all of that up? Because Gonzalez has collected a lot of experience, modalities, and tendencies over the years since he last took a detour from proper studio albums. He even lives in LA now instead of Paris. All of that comes to bear in DSVII, which Mute released in late September.
Officially, Gonzalez says this installment of Digital Shades draws a heavy influence from early video game soundtracks, sci-fi and fantasy films of the 1980s, and the work of analog synth pioneers such as Brian Eno, Suzanne Ciani, Mort Garson, and John Carpenter. He also says that he was working toward a fuller, more complete-sounding Shades this go-around. Amid all of that, Gonzalez bring us up and away into another world. So if DSVI was for grounded introspection, DSVII is about reaching outward to a galactic degree.
DSVII is, of course, not the first time Gonzalez mines nostalgia for a muse. At any stop along the way — at any point along the discography of Gonzalez and his beloved M83 — nostalgia is a key component of the work. But it’s never cynical or gimmicky, for there doesn’t seem to be a cynical or gimmicky bone in his body. Instead, Gonzalez practices the time-honored French tradition of synthesizing American cheese into something meaningful and even cool-sounding. Add to it the transcend air of California and you get DSVII.
As I alluded to earlier, DSVII is much more structured than its predecessor (and longer, too, a full hour compared to the predecessor’s 37 minutes). But no moment or note is wasted: It flows in a narrative capacity and each beat counts. There are times when you get passages that recall M83’s two most popular albums and others that sound like Gonzalez teamed up with Sébastien Tellier to score French cinema. There are more acoustic-sounding instruments on this volume, including piano and acoustic guitar. Some moments reflect the tempered ambience of DSVI, though. Even if Gonzalez isn’t the same person he was 12 years ago — who is? and who would be after what he’s experienced? — he never forgets that foundational palette of the first volume.
“Oh Yes You’re There, Everyday,” led by an array of carefully played synths and supported by a multi-party choir, has the endearing cheese of 1980s American television music filtered through an earnestness that Gonzalez brings to his work. The result sounds like an interstellar opus. This is not the only piece that makes me think of Junk. “A Word of Wisdom,” featuring a wordless female vocal lead, has a composition that recalls the groovy after-school special vibes of M83’s most misunderstood album. (I personally love Junk.)
The majesty of Oblivion is resonant on the cinematic meditations of “Mirage,” which features crystalline orchestral synths that ebb and flow like the tides in despair.
“Colonies” shows the Eno influence. It’s a beautiful manifestation of digital wallpaper that results from Eno-esque experimentations with the capabilities of analog synths. It’s gorgeous in its tempered approach.
There are pieces like the crescendoed “Feelings” that reflect a more hopeful era — when reaching for the stars was simply a manifest destiny of global interest and not a solution for escaping a planet dying by our own hands. A harder-edged, more song-oriented version of this could have easily been a part of Hurry Up.
“Lune De Fiel,” led by a kinetically prog drum part, comes off as a more controlled version of “Contact,” the unabashedly grand, space-oriented freakout that closed Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories. With its richly layered synth parts, perhaps it’s a window into what that song could have been.
A lot has happened in Gonzalez’s musical career, which no doubt has had an impact on why DSVI was so introspective and grounded and DSVII is grandly cinematic and filled with fantastical concepts. Perhaps, as with the first Digital Shades, it’s again time for Gonzalez to hunker down and consider the next phase of M83. What a great bridge he’s built for this quest. And may he never lose sight of his preternatural ability to make nostalgia a positive thing to behold.
You can buy the album on vinyl and CD via his website or record stores. It’s also available in streaming and downloads from the usual suspects.