The Headphone Lobby must have a lot of pull with Anthony Gonzales, now the lone member of M83. After 2003’s Dead Cities, Red Seas, and Lost Ghosts (which Gonzales recorded with onetime collaborator Nicholas Fromageau) practically begged for a careful — and solo — listening experience, Before the Dawn Heals Us is a one-album case for the sound-delivery method. The intricate and seemingly oxymoronic subtleties beneath the bombast that is an M83 song demand careful examination. But more importantly, the tone is constantly introspective, even as, on this release, its sound moves slightly closer to the dance floor.
The differences between M83’s debut and its successor are evident in the albums’ covers. The couple of shoegazers laying in a meadow depicted on Dead Cities have been moved to an undisclosed location so the meadow could be razed and a thriving metropolis could sprout in its place. Every song on Before the Dawn Heals Us, including the most beautiful Dead Cities-esque tracks, has a noticeable sense of urban paranoia. And some are constructed entirely out of the stuff: the Talkie Walkie-like “Farewell/Goodbye,” the gorgeous moment of sacrifice in “Safe,” and most notably, the simply terrifying “Car Chase Terror!” complete with spoken word and an evil monster.
The album’s centerpiece, the three-part story-arc of “Fields, Shorelines, and Hunters,” “*” and “I Guess I’m Floating,” is the second peak of the record (after the sublime car-crash ode of lead-off single “Don’t Save Us From the Flames”). In particular, “*” signals a departure from the strictly beautiful indie-friendly sound of the M83 we all know and love. The song tears apart at the seams, with synths shooting everywhere and guitars wailing into the wind. It’ll knock you on your ass, and it hums into “I Guess I’m Floating” before you have a chance to switch gears. It’s a stunning, and foreboding, move.
But too often the album lives up to the latter song’s title and simply drifts along. “Teen Angst” and “In the Cold I’m Standing” are mostly dull shells of better M83 songs, and once again Gonzalez sticks an overlong, droning song on the end of his record simply because he can. None of Before the Dawn Heals Us‘s songs are so bad you don’t want to listen to them (the closest any song comes to that is the fortunately short, fatefully French “Can’t Stop”).
But the coasting keeps the truly great productions on the album from forming an entirely cohesive, mind-blowing experience. I’m somewhat puzzled by my only slightly positive response to an album that would seem to be a love/hate affair, and I may very well learn to cherish Before the Dawn Heals Us. On the other hand, it might just languish on my shelf for years to come, unnoticed and unloved. For now, M83 stays in high respect, even if this album seems less than heavenly.