By Tom Lynch
A band named after a galaxy would sound like this.
M83—abbreviation for the Messier 83 intermediate galaxy—the (mostly) solo project from France’s Anthony Gonzalez, has been upwardly gazing, when not strictly gazing at its shoes, since 2001. Gonzalez and then M83 partner Nicolas Fromageau released their self-titled debut, but it wasn’t until 2003’s “Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts” that the band gained serious attention, as the album’s overwhelming offering of half ambient/half punishing electronica showed signs of genius. With “Before the Dawn Heals Us,” Gonzalez’s next effort, the promise was delivered, as he kept his electronic roots and introduced more melody and, yes, more vocals, soft and whispery if not absent altogether. The album’s monstrous scope, a colossal undertaking of soft light and symphonic warmth, was breathtaking.
“Saturdays=Youth” is a different animal. M83’s recent record finds Gonzalez venturing deeper into the pop realm, even stating openly that this collection of songs are a celebration of his teenage years—the 1980s, adolescent love and, of course, the John Hughes movies. (The album’s artwork tells the tale—amongst the impossibly youthful angst and innocence frolicking on the lawn there’s a dead ringer for Molly Ringwald.) Gonzalez doesn’t abandon his previous romances—“Couleurs” is a dance track only he can conjure and “Dark Moves of Love” and “Midnight Souls Remain” recall the hypnotizing ambient work of his “Digital Shades: Volume One”—but the pure pop songs, the compactly atmospheric jaunts of grace, remain the most memorable. “Kim & Jessie,” “Skin of the Night,” “Graveyard Girl”—songs for, and songs about, the high school collective, those gazing hopeful and scared into the future and forgetting to enjoy the present: the brains, the jocks, the basket cases, the princesses and the criminals.
“Before I composed the album, I [wanted] to find a concept for it,” Gonzalez says in his thick French accent. “I never worked on Eighties kind of music before—I was trying to make a tribute for the period. I think Eighties music…it’s one of the most important periods for the music industry, because so many bands I love are from that period, like Tears for Fears.”
He says his teenage years were, like they were for many of us, his most formative. “I think it’s certainly one of the best periods in my life, so far,” he says. “I have so many good memories about my teenage years, I feel that I had the best friends ever with me. I discovered so many beautiful things, new bands, new music, new movies. So when you’re 13 or 14, you discover so many new things. It’s like a new world, and maybe [there is] something beautiful about it, the innocence, that I really like. You feel unbeatable, you feel like you’re the master of the world. You lose confidence when you grow up. That’s what I love about being a teenager—you can do stupid things, but you always think that it’s cool. It’s beautiful.”
While his intentions are sweet and admirable, one could imagine a musician crafting a record based in Eighties lore that sounds much too gee-whiz, over-the-top in nostalgia without ever really capturing the experience, just the magnified highlights. “What was difficult was to be sincere,” Gonzalez says about the writing process. “Because it sounds very Eighties, it could’ve been too cheesy, too catchy. What was important to me was to keep personal things in it, to make it personal. To keep [my] identity in the album I guess that’s what was the most difficult thing.”
While Gonzalez dabbled in Eno-like ambience for last fall’s “Digital Shades” record, it’s been three years since “Before the Dawn,” a bit of time for an artist still ascending. “I like to take my time to make an album,” he says. “It’s important for me to feel confident with the songs. I like to take my time—I can be fast, but there are some moments when I like to do nothing. Like during the summer—I like to hang out with my friends and go the beach.”
Gonzalez says that while M83’s touring extensively most of this year in support of “Saturdays=Youth,” he’ll write on the road, as usual, on his laptops and keyboards. (He says he’d like to release another volume of “Digital Shades” by year’s end.)
“It’s difficult sometimes,” he says on writing on the road. “It can be really exhausting on tour. I really prefer to compose music in my own studio in the south of France, a quiet place where I feel confident to write.”
M83 plays May 29 at Empty Bottle, 1039 North Western, (773)276-3600, at 7pm & 10pm. $15-$17.