M83 Reaches for Familiar Heights on the Shimmering 'Fantasy'
Published Mar 14, 2023Anticipation was high for Fantasy. The first proper artist album from M83 in seven years — a soundtrack for his brother's Knife + Heart filled the gap, as well as an entry in his instrumental Digital Shades series — it was rumoured to be a return to shoegazey form after 2016's gloriously uncool (and polarizing) Junk.
That album failed to yield anything as life-affirming and commercial-ready as "Midnight City," the 2011 single that put Gonzalez on the map in North America, and new fans hungry for a sequel to that song's effortless zeitgeist-capturing were likely confused by the unorthodox synth-tones and left-field weirdness of Junk. However, while Fantasy sort of picks up where the excellent duo of 2008's Saturdays=Youth and 2011's Hurry Up, We're Dreaming left off, it's deeper and richer for having been spliced with just a bit of the wonky DNA that made up Junk, which (whisper it quietly) may be a better album than its successor. Still, Fantasy is a welcome and largely satisfying album from Gonzalez and company, even if it's mostly a return to business as usual.
Things start out strongly with lead single "Oceans Niagara," a structured but fairly open-ended jam (the Chemical Brothers' "Private Psychedelic Reel" is briefly conjured at one point) that features all the lush, cinematic tonality you expect from Gonzalez, including the breathless, widescreen scope that's gained him so many comparisons to filmmaker John Hughes. "Amnesia" offers more of the same in a different register, propulsive and rousing, with a great dual vocal pushing against Gonzalez's signature wall of sound.
And while it's certainly satisfying to hear Gonzalez crank up the synth washes in ye olde style (and the production is better than ever), it feels just as good to hear him fold in some of the goofier elements that populated Junk. The ungainly synth stabs on "Earth to Sea" sound dredged from the tech demo of some long-lost '80s soundbank, and the amusing disco-funk of the title track gives way to all sorts of quirky choices, helping to offset Gonzalez's usual air of transcendent knowingness — that strange feeling of somehow being nostalgic for both the past and present that makes his music so effective. It brings things down to earth in a way he sometimes neglects in his headlong rush for the excessive and sublime.
Indeed, Gonzalez is arguably best when he can pack emotion into songs in ways other than epic length, and Fantasy has its share of inessential padding. The record's second half is weighed down by worthwhile passages lost in overlong run times, intros that don't necessarily pay off and the usual ethereal meandering that long-time fans are used to (closing the album with two nearly eight-minute tracks was definitely a choice.) These are fairly minor quibbles for those who'd been waiting for new material however, and when Fantasy hits, it hits. It's a confident and proper return, written squarely from Gonzalez's comfort zone with a few fun twists from its undersung predecessor; It's exactly what we needed from M83 right now, even if it's sometimes a little too extra.