Hurry Up, We're Dreaming
By Conrad Amenta | 25 October 2011
Until the day we have truly intuitive advertising, we’ll be living in the era of perpetual hyperbole. With intense competition for our limited attention spans, communication takes place at full volume. Nothing can be incremental. Each product must be double, triple, or a thousand times better than what preceded it. It must “set a new standard,” or be an “instant classic,” or “revolutionary.” People line up for the latest iteration of a cell phone, and the phone is hardly the point; it’s the feeling of sudden escalation, that one might actually punch through to a future promised to us for years by the unending hype of advertising. The passing of Steve Jobs, an incredibly important person in the history of the design and manufacture of luxury goods, was met with the kind of sadness and mythologizing reserved for visionaries and holy men. This isn’t a mistaken impulse; in our time, the man who made an operating system seem like a game-changing moral and philosophical choice is as close as we get to a prophet.
Don Draper moment aside, I’m trying to get at the fact that I find this sort of exaggeration deeply depressing, and that M83’s newest album, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, is as much of this era of hyperbolic signification as any I’ve heard. It speaks in the incoherent tongue of the commercial epic, which is to say, epic “sounding” and epic “feeling” and for all intents and purposes an epic in every way but the breadth or relevance of its content.
Dynamically, the effort is faithful to what is by now Anthony Gonzalez’s MO of gushing, heartfelt swoops of melody, hushed confessions, and hyper-produced pop that occasionally reaches the fringes of shoegazer rock. The primary difference between this and everything else he’s ever done is that his formula is here presented in larger format, at greater volume, and with even more bombast—despite doing nothing new to pay attention to, which has the effect of spectacle pointing only at itself. It blasts off with all the digital hallelujahs of a videogame soundtrack, and so it’s true that it will wrestle away your attention for a time. Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming is about size, after all, and it puts up a blockbuster façade. But this excess is an exhaustible resource.
And it’s not that I don’t subscribe to Gonzalez’s particular brand of dewy-eyed melodrama. I loved Saturdays = Youth (2008), for example, both for the quality of its songs—far better, and more consistent from track to track, than any offered here—but also because it was the first of M83’s albums that I felt married an appropriate theme to Gonzalez’s freight-train aesthetic. It was goopy and embarrassing (who could forget the female lead singing “She digs her nails into a naked chest” with all the breathy ardor of a soft-core narrator), but for the first time his excess felt like it was employed in the service of something. It was not only an album about adolescence, but an adolescent album—unrefined, and refreshingly free of cynical style-hopping. Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming is not much worse, but it fails to build on what we’ve already heard either through the complication of M83’s themes, or by simply trying something different. It is goopier and more embarrassing, but less thematically consistent; its songs don’t pull off the same urgency; it feels bloated and unnecessary, like the sequel no one planned until the unexpected success of the original.
The album wastes no time evoking major-chord bluster in an epic pop tradition. “Midnight City” is immediately catchy, and almost as immediately obnoxious (listen to it twice in a row and you’ll have heard “MA-UWOW-U-MA!” about a hundred times); “Reunion” falls somewhere between Unforgettable Fire-era U2 and Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ’69,” both from 1984; the interminable “Wait” shows a marked lack of dexterity with its navel-gazing acoustic strumming. “Raconte-Moi Une Histoire,” a story narrated by a child about turning into a frog, is somehow the only thing that approaches commentary, supposing that magic and total transformation will be the only things that allow us to “play together.” (And also, in what I hope is a reference to gay rights, asks us to imagine a scenario in which “your vision changes” and “your mommy suddenly becomes your daddy.” Trite, perhaps, but I’ll take it.) You can almost never understand what Gonzalez is saying through the hyper-processed vocals, and when you can you’ll think this weaker material isn’t helped along by the fact that such unabashed sincerity had its crescendo on M83’s last album.
I’ll return again to Arcade Fire, and their trio of albums, as a convenient example of how to develop a discographic arc. It’s true that Neon Bible (2007) didn’t aspire to the same catharsis as Funeral (2004), and for that reason was a disappointment to some. (The inclusion of “No Cars Go,” a much older song, felt like acquiescence to that faction who would insist on a shout-out-loud number.) But the emergence of The Suburbs made the band’s process of working through a kind of public grief clear to those with a retrospective ear. Their early outbursts made even more sense in the context of such restrained, mature resolution; one feels as if they are growing up with Arcade Fire. Gonzalez declines to develop these kinds of inter-album connections, instead focusing on the minute details of song textures and dynamic thrusts, on maintaining a kind of teenaged stasis. It’s not bad, really; it also doesn’t exist on the same plane as our best artists. Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming feels like a hermetically sealed giant, some new standard in episodic disposability operating entirely in its own vacuum. It deserves our attention, perhaps, but it’s hard to love in a lasting way.
M83’s music is often describe as “cinematic,” which is an easy watchword denoting scale and nothing more. It’s an attempt to transcend the album, and the way we’re describing it, from something that is simply “big-sounding” to a place where narrative is inscribed and developed, where characters move towards conflict and maybe even resolution, and where we derive some sort of insight. But “cinematic” is ultimately employed with as much meaningless volume as the word “revolutionary,” and Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming is as likely to be mistaken for a rich narrative experience as a soda is to overturn society. The cacophony raised by this album is not so much the kind that unsettles us in important and challenging ways, but is the commercial noise of a spectacle without a center, of emotion so generic we are instantly desensitized to it. Gonzalez has bought in to the marketer’s notion that importance is measured on a linear scale forever trending larger. I don’t have any idea why he would want to write music in that space. Too sincere to be camp, taking himself too seriously to be cool, Gonzalez is now treading perilously close to the kitsch.