Perhaps it would be better if Kevin Shields just faked his own death. It would certainly make life easier for all of the mumbly, shuffling noise-pop aficionados who’ve been waiting so impatiently for a follow-up to the My Bloody Valentine leader’s last major statement, 1991’s Loveless. After completing that headphone-head-trip masterpiece—$500,000 and countless hours of studio time in the making—Shields and the rest of his shoegazing crew were signed to Island and given a comfortable, incentive-crushing monthly allowance. Years passed. The other band members drifted away to do their own things. Shields turned up on—yech—a Primal Scream album. He was off his nut, the rumors said, taking his recording equipment apart down to the screws or having frequent encounters with UFOs. But mostly, people talked about how Shields had recorded new songs—some maybe better than those on Loveless!—but destroyed them because of his crippling perfectionism.
When nothing ever materialized, those who dwell in the Land of Many Effects Pedals were forced to start looking for a new leader. Over the past few years, hasty coronations have been handed out to some shockingly unworthy successors. Does anyone still remember the hype that surrounded the Morphean melodies of Flying Saucer Attack back in 1994? How about the praise heaped on Godspeed You Black Emperor! before we all realized that leftist Canadian collectives don’t kid around with titles like “Terrible Canyons of Static”?
The latest victim of these unrealistic expectations is M83, a now-one-man band based in the French resort town of Antibes and named for a spiral galaxy. Its previous long-player, 2003’s Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts, was lush, if unchallenging, and it effectively demonstrated frontman Anthony Gonzalez’s ability to dangle the promise of dream-pop bliss. Synths, samples, softly intoned vocals—all were sublimated into a haze that always seemed to hide more than you could hear in any given moment. But whereas MBV’s washes of noise and indecipherable lyrics were like the hot rush of bedroom whispers (Did he really just say, “Fuck cunt”?!), M83’s sound seemed to demonstrate a more clinical approach. It was as if Gonzalez were trying to re-create moments of erotic delirium by analyzing the lovers’ brain waves and working from there. Needless to say, those prone to use such DeMille-sized adjectives as “epic,” “majestic,” and “sweeping” loved it.
The new Before the Dawn Heals Us is the first M83 record made without Gonzalez’s longtime collaborator, Nicholas Fromageau. The overall aesthetic isn’t appreciably different, but that post-breakthrough recording budget means, naturally, a fuller, more lavish sound. Make that a lot more lavish: Leadoff track “Moonchild” has so many warm layers of fuzz and such a cosmic-sounding synthesized chorus that it’s positively Floydian. Of course, even Roger Waters might cringe at galactic nonsense such as “Suddenly a voice told me/‘Keep on singing, little boy/ Then raise your arms to the big black sky/Raise your arms the highest you can/So the whole universe will glow.’” Aging rave survivors may have flashbacks to the Orb’s “Little Fluffy Clouds,” but maybe we should keep in mind that English is Gonzalez’s second language.
Actually, it’s tough not to. Like its predecessor, Dawn frequently comes across like a Laptop Age version of one of those sci-fi LPs by Gong or Magma, the proggiest of Europrogsters. The disc is a weird mix of pomposity and naiveté, a concerted attempt to make the music of the future that often seems quaintly retro. When Gonzalez manages to get it all balanced just so, the results can be impressive: Witness “Don’t Save Us From the Flames,” 4 minutes and 15 seconds of loud-softness that do thrashy and spacey pretty much simultaneously. When the balance is off, however—and it is for much of the new record—Gonzalez can reveal an inelegantly straightforward approach to soundscaping: Dead Cities’ “In Church” had a church organ; “Birds” included fake avian chirps. On Dawn, more artificial fauna shows up on “Slight Night Shiver,” in the form of synthetic cicadas. Similarly, “Car Chase Terror!” features the sounds of both automobiles on the highway and, get this, a woman who is terrified.
M83 has been credited with being able to elicit warm feelings from instruments that were long considered to be cold: cheap synthesizers, drum machines, computer-generated postproduction effects. Odd, then, that on “A Guitar and a Heart,” Gonzalez is unable to escape the dispassionate nature of his machines, turning in an instrumental piece of roborock a little too heavy on the robo. The overly smooth “Farewell/Goodbye” also fails to generate much emotion, despite the slow ’n’ sad tempo and whispery evocations of “flowers and weeping willows.” Ditto for “I Guess I’m Floating,” which seems to exist only so Gonzalez can show that he likes samples of children cavorting on the playground just as much as Boards of Canada do.
The better moments on Dawn are when Gonzalez strays from the path of pleasantries and gets a little dissonant. Unsurprisingly, one example is a song with an actual human drummer, a more common species on the newer disc than on Dead Cities. The flesh-and-blood percussion gives “*” a pounding, racing pulse that wouldn’t be out of place on a prime-period Chrome album. And the rote keyboard line of “Fields, Shorelines and Hunters” is completely obliterated by an apocalypse of cymbal bashing and static. As ethereal as MBV got—or for that matter, as Ride or even Slowdive got—it was always evident that there were people on the other side of the wall of noise. Their sound was genuinely messy, whereas M83 too often seems to carefully calculate the best way to achieve the same sort of shambles.
Its few clamorous passages aside, Before the Dawn Heals Us is undeniably pretty. But as anyone who has ever been in a relationship can attest, you need something more than beauty to get you through the dull parts. And it turns out that brains may not be the answer: It’s looking more and more as if Loveless was a happy accident of the times; it can’t be re-created by analysis and precision. And let’s face it, we shouldn’t expect breakthroughs from a pasticheur. We’ll probably never find another My Bloody Valentine, whether we stare down at our ratty old kicks or look up into the star-filled sky.CP