M83: Fantasy

Many people have a defining moment of their childhood; for M83’s Anthony Gonzalez, childhood seems like the defining moment of his life. Each album since 2008’s John Hughes-inspired Saturdays=Youth has communed with a specific set of nostalgic keepsakes, whether that be Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming), classic Nintendo scores (DSVII), or Punky Brewster (Junk). While Gonzalez has been uncharacteristically mum on the subject of the ’80s and ’90s ephemera that inform M83’s new album, its wide-eyed zeal signals the band’s continued interest in reliving those early pangs of wonderment that adulthood cruelly snuffs out. It’s called Fantasy because of course it is. The first (and only) words on lead single “Oceans Niagara” are “Beyond adventure!” because of course they are.

Fantasy represents a course correction after Junk’s more playful vibe, but it’s also a slight reclamation of that album’s bright, garish elements. In a classic “return to form”-baiting move, Gonzalez delicately throws Junk under the bus in the press release: He says he let “negative things,” namely his distaste for “the world going too fast,” influence that album, while this time, he yearned to recapture the “energy” of 2005’s youthfully dramatic Before the Dawn Heals Us. The timing for his return to that album makes perfect sense: M83 have always been inspired by 20-year-old aesthetics, and now their early material is old enough to fit the bill. 

The big emotions of songs like “Don’t Save Us From the Flames” and “Teen Angst” are back, but, befitting Fantasy’s name, they’re harder to pin to real-world concerns like car crashes or hormones. The patient build and bottomless vocal harmonies of the cavernous ballad “Us and the Rest” tug at heartstrings, but the lyrics contrast all that pathos with sci-fi absurdity. Here is the second verse in its entirety: “Hello freak!/Can you see the sky ladder/By the limbo café/Leading to the green ray?/Sometimes it fades…” Sure, you could argue that listening to M83 for the lyrics is like watching Terrence Malick films for the dialogue, but Fantasy is by far the once-mostly-instrumental band’s most verbose offering to date. 

Gonzalez has said that he wanted to be more “present” this time, in the interest of achieving a more “personal” album, and at times, like the 10cc’d-out closer “Dismemberment Bureau,” we get a clearer picture of the balance between his long-standing reverence for bygone media and his creeping sense of dread about what’s replaced it. “Do you miss the day/Of human revolution,” he and Kaela Sinclair ask, invoking one of the 20th century’s biggest cultural game-changers: “Television/What a good way to learn/About us, and the heirs of our land.” Those moments of clarity are fleeting. Fantasy is certainly wordier than its predecessors, but if anything, the added syllables muddy up the message for a band that’s been defined by snappy, fantastical one-liners—“The city is my church”; “We own the sky”; “I’ll travel in your dreams.” Instead, songs are dominated by phrases better suited to advertise Mountain Dew: Dune Edition: “cosmic adrenaline,” “immortal energy,” “limitless star,” and “metal rapture.” Though they sometimes aid, or at least complement, M83’s head-in-the-clouds world-building, the writing on this album doesn’t reflect Gonzalez’s professed interest in revealing more of his own psyche. To be fair, it’s hard to envision what deeply personal M83 lyrics would even look like at this stage in their career. The high-wire drama of Before the Dawn Heals Us and Saturdays=Youth are the closest they’ve ever come to relatable, but even that felt like an extension of the band’s exaggerated and intensified vision of late 20th-century adolescence. 

The music offers a much more legible roadmap for understanding where M83 are today, 20-plus years into their lifespan. Gonzalez might seem to be following a familiar trajectory: from unexpected breakout hit to lukewarmly received reaction to, now, an attempt to console day-one fans. But that narrative’s a bit too neat. It ignores the merits of the risks that Gonzalez took on Junk, and the unexpected left turns of that album that carry over to Fantasy. There’s nothing quite as knowingly unhip as a Steve Vai guitar solo (“Go!”) or a reanimation of the corpse of Taco’s chintzy 1983 synth-pop cover of “Puttin’ on the Ritz” (“Bibi the Dog”), but every hint of krautrock cool is paired with unabashed camp. If I had to guess what’s on Fantasy’s moodboard, I’d go with the Giorgio Moroder-produced NeverEnding Story theme song and the iconic, pan-flute-led intro to the ’90s educational children’s show Eyewitness

The interplay between sounds that read as retro chic and those that sound impossibly dated is fascinating, an ever-shifting conflict within M83’s work that reveals larger truths about pop culture’s arbitrary nostalgia-recycling complex. At one point in the early 2010s, “Baker Street”-style wailing saxophones couldn’t have been more uncool, yet they helped turn “Midnight City” into an inescapable hit. The main battlefields here are the songs “Deceiver” and “Sunny Boy,” both of which begin with distant, solemn intros but then morph into more playful shapes when the beats drop. The M83 of old would’ve piled on massive drums and melodrama, but here, Gonzalez opts for an Avalon strut and a “Major Tom” boogie, respectively. M83 was once maligned for its dramatic ’80s pomp, but today, that’s precisely what tempers the impact of Junk’s brasher sonics.

Gonzalez and producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen pulled out all the stops on Fantasy’s sound design—the album credits list 37 different synths or keyboards and include an “effects and treatments” section that reads like the entire pedal department of your city’s largest Guitar Center. In its opulence, pursuit of writerly sci-fi imagery, and obsession with the band’s legacy, this album feels even more labored over than the ambitious Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming (which, despite having nearly twice as many tracks, is only seven minutes longer).

What Fantasy is missing isn’t any one synth preset, or a cultural reference for the next season of Stranger Things to popularize. It just lacks urgency. The best M83 songs aren’t necessarily complex, multi-movement epics, but they go up, taking us skyward and sparing no gut-punches along the way. The cascading “Oceans Niagara” has some of that going for it, and “Earth to Sea” offers some much-needed catharsis in the middle of an album otherwise split between midtempo plodders and peppy boppers. But otherwise it feels like Gonzalez has held onto teenage aesthetics while stripping them of the theatricality that is the true source of their power. Without the emotional stakes, Fantasy is just a narcotized Neverland. 

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