Before the Dawn Heals Us
Review by Monte Holman
In the latest effort from M83, we understand why recently Sofia Coppola was fond of Kevin Shields — this overpowering wall-of-sound electro rock ignites images of dizzying neon signs and the mutterings of constant, distant chatter. Music with narrative inclination. Though more synthy than My Bloody Valentine, M83 certainly dip into the rock soundscape aesthetic with similar vigor. But there’s more — samples, hair band riffs, battle themes sonically pitting human against machine, and many elements of what we all would consider downright emo. Before The Dawn Heals Us comes off somewhere between an alternate soundtrack to The Never Ending Story and straight-up Omaha-based emotive rock and roll.
But due to the album’s alluring otherworldliness, we can’t fault the now-solo Anthony Gonzalez for injecting some cliché Oberstian (dear God) introspection into these tender tracks. The shoe-gazing “Safe” remarks, “Falling stars exploding on the sea, god it’s beautiful.I am so alone.” And before the song fades into the sound of fireworks and crowd noise, a dramatic instrumental section is prefaced by a couple lines of spoken-word. Maybe Gonzalez is a romantic; maybe he’s being Euro-cheeky. It doesn’t matter. It’s a beautiful song, a beautiful record.
The beauty in Before the Dawn extends far beyond ethereal sadness. The opening track, “Moonchild,” begins sparsely with toms and a piano, conjuring dramatic Seventies icon, Styx — we expect to be shown the way. Instead, a sampled feminine voice narrates:
“suddenly a voice told me,
Keep on singing, little boy.
Then raise your arms to the big black sky.
Raise your arms as high as you can,
so the whole universe will glow.’”
And glow it does. Fifty seconds into this intro, drum fills usher in a slightly distorted electronic bass supporting powerful melodies voiced by angelic choruses.
From there, “Don’t Save Us From the Flames” has the makeup of an upbeat single, verse/chorus, etc. While Gonzalez is less than expressive vocally, the volatile instrumentals on this track define M83: cheap keyboards, arena rock, indie tenderness, and hand claps.
“*,” the sixth track, was most likely playing during the Big Bang. Noisy starts and stops give this song a particular chaotic urgency that must’ve been present as masses exploded and hurled scorching rocks through the universe. Clips of sound from zero to eleven on the volume knob burst and disappear through the speakers without warning.
M83 contain a more obvious element of cinema that extends beyond soundtrack-inclined writing. “Car Chase Terror!” opens with a B-movie monologue, one actress playing both mother and daughter, describing the dream you have when you can’t seem to outrun the murderer. She pleads herself into an insane frenzy ending in a car wreck atop Gonzalez’s furious accompaniment. Crickets chirp as traffic speeds by in the background to begin and end the song, bleeding into the next track, the resigned “Slight Night Shiver,” as the woman tries to calm down.
Finally, “Lower Your Eyelids to Die With the Sun” shows the grandiose, long-winded side of M83′s cinematic temperament. It’s still pretty and all, but the song melts into orchestrated mush complete with tympanis. I suppose it’s a fitting last track to such an ambitious album, a slowing of breath at sunrise, but it’s a bit much. Its ten minutes and thirty-seven seconds could be reduced to about two minutes and thirty-seven seconds and have the same effect. The movie credits are rolling. And rolling, and rolling, rolling, rolling.
Darkness and light, demons and angels, fire and ice. Celestial opposites fill Before the Dawn Heals Us. But Gonzalez masterfully allows them to coexist by composing excellent transitions, keeping the songs short enough (save “Lower…”) to hold our interest throughout this narrative album. The recording, on a whole, flows evenly. Songs fade in and out of each other, and the order makes sense. For example, the insistent sixth track fades into “I Guess I’m Floating,” a quiet, lovely segue into the more hyper “Teen Angst.” The songs lead listeners consistently into subsequent phases of the album.
These are stories of love, loss, and hope, but Gonzalez presents them more effectively than whiny emo bands might. The noise blasts and saintly melodies prove an innocent sincerity yet mature wisdom, the ability for a songwriter to feel without taking his or herself too seriously. Point in case, most of the feeling comes from samples and synthesized vocals and instruments.
Gonzalez winks at and gently pinches the cheeks of the bright-eyed and dyed-black-headed and offers a real example of touching music. Perhaps someday they’ll get it.
— Monte Holman